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Covering combat, policing itself puts press in spotlight

War in Iraq, Blair scandal at Times, and celebrity troubles grab headlines

For the news media, 2003 was a year dominated by war, scandal, and falls from grace. The nation's most powerful newspaper was rocked by credibility problems and internal turmoil while its most influential talk host faced drug rehab and a reported legal probe. Two of America's biggest names -- an athlete and a musician -- triggered media frenzies with cases of alleged sex abuse. And journalists found their skill and courage tested by a Mideast war that literally put them on the front lines. The view from Iraq: Before US forces invaded Iraq, the conventional wisdom was that this would be another briefing-room war. Instead, the Pentagon "embedded" hundreds of journalists in tanks and trenches with troops, making this the most closely monitored combat since Vietnam. Two distinguished local journalists -- former Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly and Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer -- were among those killed while covering the story. The Jayson Blair disaster: He was a 20-something reporter on a fast track until he was exposed at The New York Times as a serial fabricator and plagiarizer. When the dust cleared, executive editor Howell Raines had resigned, a postmortem -- known as the "Siegal Report" -- had pinpointed problems infecting the Times culture, and a new sheriff, public editor Dan Okrent, had been hired to monitor the paper. Even talk radio hosts can go too far: It was a rough year for some oracles of the airwaves. WEEI-AM hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan were suspended after comparing an escaped gorilla to a Metco student. Right-wing shoutmaster Michael Savage lost his MSNBC gig for telling a caller "you should only get AIDS and die." The King of the Dittoheads, Rush Limbaugh, took a five-week hiatus after admitting an addiction to painkillers. Laci, Kobe, and Michael: It was "Can you top this?" in the world of high-profile criminal cases. LA Laker Kobe Bryant's arrest on suspicion of rape threatened to eclipse the trial of Scott Peterson, accused of murdering his wife, Laci. But even Bryant may become a footnote compared to the Michael Jackson saga, which triggered a media vigil just waiting for the private jet that delivered the King of Pop to authorities in November. Talk about manna for the tabloids. Uncertainty at 1 Herald Square: There's an uneasy feeling around the Boston Herald after a year in which a) former editor Ken Chandler was brought back in a consultant's role; b) the tabloid put more emphasis on screaming headlines and exposed flesh; and c) publisher Pat Purcell announced cutbacks that included veteran columnists Monica Collins and Wayne Woodlief. The horror of the Station fire: It was not happenstance that horrific images of the Rhode Island nightclub inferno made it onto the air. They were captured by a Providence TV cameraman who was at the club to film a story on safety in public venues. In a gruesome twist, the reporter on that story was WPRI-TV (Channel 12) reporter Jeff Derderian, who owned the Station and was ultimately indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges. Arnold says "hasta la vista" to the media: Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to use "The Tonight Show" to announce his candidacy for governor of California reflected his basic media strategy -- outfinesse the press. Relying largely on neatly staged photo ops, "The Terminator" cruised to victory without having to deal with that annoying mainstream media scrutiny. News you can peruse: Newspaper companies tried hard to capture the Internet-addicted young adult with free mini-tabloids like The Washington Post's Express or amNew York, funded by the Tribune Co. These papers offer the world in 15 minutes and target time-pinched 18- to 34-year-olds. The upside: getting non-newspaper readers hooked on the habit. The downside: getting them hooked on the Cliffs Notes version of news. You deserve a break today: Joan Kroc, widow of former McDonald's hamburger king Ray Kroc, liked San Diego's public radio affiliate KPBS-FM so much that she left NPR more than $200 million, reportedly the largest such gift ever given to a cultural institution. Stunned NPR offiicials said most of the money will go to an endowment to protect economically hard-pressed public radio from rainy days. Powell to the people: By ramming through measures to further deregulate media ownership, FCC chairman Michael Powell (son of Colin) managed to awaken the slumbering American public, which had considered the issue too esoteric to warrant attention. But a Pew Research Center survey found that in the wake of the June FCC vote, Americans were none too keen about allowing big media corporations to get bigger. And Congress took steps to roll back part of the FCC decision.

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