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MARCH 8, 1999:  A BRILL THRILL: Political analyst and Newsweek columnist George Will seems nothing if not incisive. His quill is sharp, as is his locution. Sure, his conservative take on things isn't for everyone. But at least he knows what he's talking about, right? Not so fast....

According to the "Pundit Scorecard" in the March issue of Brill's Content, Will's four-month batting average for predictions made on This Week with Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts is a sickly .111, or one out of nine. For example, Will forecasted in August that if the Independent Counsel produced "a 400-page report, it might be page 350 before you get to Monica Lewinsky." As the magazine notes, "that call might be 349 pages off."

So far, in fact, only three out of 10 designated pundits are batting better than .500 on the scorecard, which tallies the results of verifiable predictions made on a host of Sunday shows. Food for thought: Maybe The McLaughlin Group should just enlist coin-flipping chimpanzees to determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential primaries.

The scorecard is the latest addition to Brill's arsenal of journalistic accountability. After making a splashy debut last year with an unflattering report on Kenneth Starr's manipulation of the media, the magazine has established itself as an engaging spur in the side of the information age. For example, do you ever get the feeling that what you saw on that television newsmagazine last night was merely a hatchet job brought to you by desperate producers struggling to fill the ever-widening prime-time "news" hole? Brill's Content makes a point of thoroughly investigating such armchair theorizing, and reports the frequently tawdry results.

Case in point: last month's feature on a PrimeTime Live segment, which won an Emmy Award for "exposing" allegedly widespread corruption related to the evaluation of pap smears. The article details how the ABC show brazenly lied its way into a hidden-camera infiltration of a small Scottsdale laboratory, and ultimately employed dubious statistics to support its slant. The laboratory's owners, a husband and wife team, were subsequently ruined by ABC's deceit. The article goes on to note ABC's "remarkable commitment to privacy" in defending itself against a related lawsuit: barring public access to deposition transcripts and withholding basic information pertaining to the segment's producer.

Another new Brill's column, the "Big Blur" by Eric Effron, explores the diminishing barriers between news, entertainment and hype. In the latest issue, Effron reveals NBC's bizarre attempts to develop "local news tie-in ideas" for its recent miniseries, The '60s. Among the suggestions: NBC affiliates should encourage their news anchors to "dress up in fashions from the '60s." It gets worse: "Coordinate with a local college campus to have a sit-in or student take-over in the administration building. They'd be wearing your station T-shirts and carrying a '60s (the show's) banner, of course."

(Who knows, perhaps vague tie-in angles are to blame for the increasingly perplexing special report teasers brokered by Tucson's own television stations? You know, things like, "How guardrails may be giving you a false sense of security.")

Despite its watchdog status, Brill's rarely stoops to such tired devices as irony, cynicism or self-righteousness. The reporting is both sober and fair, which makes its revelations all the more resonant. With the proliferation of media continuing at breakneck speed, it's reassuring to see a mainstream publication dedicated to the celebration of good journalism and the condemnation of cheap tricks.

--Christopher Weir

MORE REAL NEWS! A recent CNN story posted on the mania.com web site puts another notch in the debate on religion and the sexuality of fictional TV characters:

Hindu Backlash vs. Xena: Several Hindu groups are outraged about an upcoming episode of Xena: Warrior Princess featuring the deity Krishna. "The episode features Lord Krishna engaging in fictional activities, helping Xena save her lesbian lover," said Trusta Krishnadas, press secretary of the World Vaishnava Association. "It treats Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, speaker of the scripture Bhagavadgita, as fictional. It also makes it appear that Lord Krishna and Vedic religion approves of and gives its blessing to homosexual relationships, which is completely false."

Wellington Indian Association president Sharda Patel said Thursday that Hindu and Indian organizations wanted Universal Studios, producer of the series, to pull the episode. American Hindus Against Defamation also lodged a protest. A statement from the producers stated that a Hindu expert on India was consulted before filming. "Every effort was made to ensure that all references to the Hindu religion were treated with the greatest respect."

The World Vaishnava Association said it was contacting television stations in the United States to ask them to show a repeat, rather than the scheduled episode. For the record, Xena: Warrior Princess has never confirmed or denied a sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle.

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