IN 1998, WITH Clinton's sex scandal, the award for most overrated story can safely be retired for posterity. Even if the worst imaginable outcome happens (and it won't), and Al Gore becomes president for a year or so, the scandal will have brought virtually no change to any policies of consequence. If, as is far more likely, Clinton is merely further disgraced, we will have spent millions of dollars and air hours confirming what anyone with half a loaf already knows: A person with the ambition necessary to hold high elected office in the US is almost certainly a jerk. This includes both Bill and his persecutors; instead of impeachment, let's put them all on trial for their very real crimes against the electorate. The only new thing we've learned from this morass is the depth of contempt both sides of the aisle hold for us know-nothing yahoos out in the hinterlands.
Back in Seattle, the desire for a good sex story resulted in overcoverage of Mary Kay LeTourneau and her nasty habit of having kids by a former student, still well under age. But special kudos for using sex to draw an audience go to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for its grotesque overhype of the Wenatchee sex ring story. (Goodness knows, the editors there want awards for it.) The overturning of several convictions in the case merited attention—but the P-I gave the story its own cute graphic, literally dozens of editorials, op-eds, and editorial cartoons to back up its months of righteous indignation, and very little coverage of the "other" side, the side arguing that there were very real reasons for believing abuse occurred.
While the P-I went for sex, the Seattle Times went for something even better: public-private partnerships. Here, the usual blitz of editorials, op-eds, and biased coverage couldn't make up for the fact that the Schell administration had virtually no support outside the usual downtown suspects (championed by the Times) for the usual array of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare schemes. The death of the 2012 Olympic bid may have been the most satisfying comeuppance of the Times in years—or at least since the Seattle Commons.
No survey of local media would be complete without mentioning the breathless overcoverage of Boeing (especially its poor stock performance) and Microsoft (especially the antitrust proceedings against it). Of course, every day (it seemed), media idiots reported on the latest yo-yoing of the Dow Jones as if it mattered.
Lastly, there are the perennials: overhyped weather events, sports scores, celebrities, fashion, horoscopes, pet features, or tragedy-stricken children (or tragedy-stricken school superintendents). Obvious, so it has to be said: These stories are products of a profit-driven entertainment industry. There is nothing wrong with being entertained, but entertainment is not news—and (while I'm at it) the overuse of live reporters should be criminalized.
ONE MORE THING: We're a year away, and I'm already so sick of the fraud that is Y2K hysteria and general millennial kitsch that I could scream, barf, or maybe even turn the TV off. Meanwhile, there are piles of stories that didn't get much, if any, attention in 1998, and should have. Locally, The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly are the city's only reliable regular sources of local political news, and they're not enough. The dailies, despite tremendous resources, report on it glancingly, and even then often with the bias that comes from golf dates with the heavy hitters. Television coverage of local politics is an oxymoron. Overall, citizen knowledge of what's being done in our name with our money in our own backyard is depressingly minimal.
Specifically, the sea shift in Seattle's city council was a story that didn't get much play. That deliberative body, thanks to three new voices, was more vibrant and more of a force in city politics in 1998 than our supposedly visionary but in fact curiously hands-off mayor, Paul Schell. His disappearance was another barely noticed local story, as was that of Republican-in-donkey-drag Gov. Gary Locke.
In no particular order, other stories that could affect your life but were ignored: the gap between a booming local economy and declining social services; our expanding prisons; loss of access to affordable health care; the corporatization of the Seattle-based fishing industry; organized labor's local resurgence; anything concerning spirituality; Boeing's nasty track record of selling weapons to dictators; the Port of Seattle's unfettered corporate welfare; the increasing popularity of private schools; and the impact of chain ownership on local media.
Finally, there's the story that's a local story everywhere: Our planet is continuing to die. For a time in past years, things like ozone holes, global warning, mass species extinction, and toxic waste attracted headlines and scientific concern. The concern is increasing, but the headlines have disappeared. Not only has the Antarctic ozone hole widened, but a matching Arctic hole extends at times as far south as Seattle. (Vancouver, BC, media report local ozone counts; Canada, like the rest of the world, is a bit more worried than we are.) The rain forests continue to fall as fast as they can be processed into disposable chopsticks. Global warming is now an accepted fact. Cancers and other illnesses based on chemical sensitivities are fast becoming a planetwide epidemic. The US continues to work hard to stall international agreements that might cut into transnational profits in an attempt to save life on Earth. Add declining sperm counts, genetic engineering, contaminated food supplies, polluted oceans, and the Al Gore for President campaign, and it's clear that our biosphere is in great danger. The crisis, when mentioned at all, is portrayed as a crisis in potential corporate earnings. May the cockroaches have pity on our souls.