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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Print presumptions

We tend to trust what we see in black and white

HERE, JUST IN CASE YOU MISSED THEM, ARE A FEW miscellaneous but related news items from last week:

Americans now spend more on gambling than on movies, videos and DVDs, music, and books combined, and with an annual growth rate of about 9 percent since 1991, gambling is growing substantially faster than the economy as a whole. But so far, that growth does not seem to have caused a serious backlash.

Benyamin Elon, an Israeli cabinet minister (and a rabbi), said Jews had erred by emphasizing security concerns, rather than their Biblical roots in the land, when they began arguing for their right to retain settlement in the West Bank. "You can't understand the Middle East if you don't understand the Prophets," he said. The Bible, he says, is where Christians and Jews meet; their debate begins only with the New Testament. They may agree with religious Jews about the Biblical past, but many evangelical Christians have a highly particular notion of what Jewish control of this land will mean for the future; for them, it will help usher in the second coming of Jesus Christ.

The French are measuring themselves. And the French government is paying for it. The country's new National Sizing Campaign represents the figure- and fashion-conscious nation's attempt to update clothing sizes so they bear a closer resemblance to today's slightly fuller French figure. Emphasis on slightly: the obesity rate in France has now topped 10 percent. The rate in the United States is three times that.

Some 40,000 adults and children in the Caribbean are believed to have died of the [AIDS] disease in 2001 alone. It is already the leading cause of death among young men.

A startling 84 percent of all NASCAR drivers have never taken so much as a single hour of traditional drivers' education.

So, you ask, what possible relationship do those five news clips share? What do they conceivably have in common? Here's what: All five of them came, word for word, from the May 18 New York Times.

So now I ask you: Does that knowledge of the news items' source enhance or detract from the believability of the five news items? Are you more or less inclined to take seriously what you just read about gambling, Israel, French fat, AIDS, and NASCAR drivers?

My guess is that you'll look back at the top of this column, scan the five items, and respond that you'll still take them all at face value. Why doubt what seems so reasonable-especially when it's right there in black and white? Not even the fact that the venerable Times has taken a credibility shellacking over the last couple of weeks will keep most of its readers from accepting, as gospel truth, 99 percent of what it prints.

I still remember how, nearly 40 years ago, as public relations director for Covenant College, I filed brief telephone reports of the college's basketball games with the local newspaper. The reports included the score, who had starred in the last few minutes, and who had the most points. In spite of my best efforts to get facts, figures, and spelling right, virtually every story in the next morning's paper had two or three errors. I clenched my fists and tore my hair.

But amazingly, I also went right on to read-and believe-all the other stories on that same sports page. Having just been conditioned to doubt what I was reading, I trusted it. The experience is burned in my memory as a reminder of the power of the printed page.

The Jayson Blair fiasco at the Times, to be sure, is no trivial matter. It would have been bad enough if it had just been a matter of one person's breach of trust. Now it appears that a systemic management style may not just have allowed, but encouraged, the falsehoods. So will that prompt tens of thousands of Times readers now to desert the Times for another paper? Don't bet on it. The doubt factor may have been incrementally raised, but the tendency to believe remains very strong.

You don't think you're that gullible? Let me test you then. Which of the five brief news stories at the top of this column didn't come from the Times after all? Which did I make up out of whole cloth?

I hope the totally fictitious statistic about NASCAR drivers doesn't prompt you to trust WORLD magazine less. I want it instead to remind you how cautious you should be about almost everything you see in black and white-even when it was put there by people you thought you could trust.