Just law & order, ma'am

Culture | The Law & Order franchise grows, USA Today reaches the top, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Digital Revolution," Nov. 27, 1999

More law & order
Law & Order is a television institution. Already renewed by NBC for an 11th season, the show took the old straight-edged style of Jack Webb from Dragnet and pitched it to a new generation. The spinoff Special Victims Unit carries on alongside the original with a new cast. Despite numerous cast changes and overhauls, the sober portrayal of crimes working their way through New York's police and court system carries on. According to NBC, 14 million viewers caught the show last season; still more watch the continuous reruns on the A&E cable network. While we see criminals trying to wheedle themselves out of jail, the regular ensemble on Law & Order is stylized. Like Dragnet, the police and district attorneys are seen in a positive light, as people doing their jobs in a hostile world. Unlike many shows, even of the Webb variety, there aren't always happy endings. Many episodes are partially inspired by recent events, and an episode airing later this season will deal with one of the decade's most horrific cases: the crimes committed by Paul Bernardo and then-wife Karla Homolka. Mr. Bernardo is serving two life sentences and Ms. Homolka two 12-year manslaughter terms for raping and murdering two teenage girls in 1991 and 1992. Paul Bernardo's lawyers are complaining about the show, saying it would hurt upcoming appeals. Yet Law & Order's producers are carrying on with the show, which will set the story in the usual New York setting. One of Law & Order's strong suits is the way it portrays the Big Apple, helped along by heaping amounts of location shooting. It holds up a lens to the people who live there and shows how life can go horribly wrong. On top, but worth reading?
USA Today is now America's top-circulation newspaper. What was once mocked as "McPaper" is now king of the hill. Why is it succeeding? For good and bad reasons. USA Today was one of the first papers to be colorful, breaking out the infamous infographic. The editors also keep stories super short, resulting in a paper that can be read while eating in a fast-food restaurant or waiting to catch a plane. But too often the content is a condensed version of the line found in other papers. As a steady diet, the paper isn't very nourishing, but what other one is? Politically correct coverage and the oft-mentioned liberal bias are just part of the problem in a nation of dull print media. At least USA Today has a voice. The old days of strong, sturdy papers with maverick publishers battling it out are almost forgotten. What we have now are bland rags that have a monopoly over their cities and lack both tone and drive. Also, with fewer papers around, rungs are cut off and opportunities closed for promising writers and editors to rise through the ranks. Actually, overall circulation in the industry dropped 0.7 percent in the six months ending Sept. 3, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, as USA Today nosed past The Wall Street Journal. The whole newspaper business has been on a slow, steep decline for years, and Gannett's national newspaper was one of the last major launches. Online journalism has been held up as the harbinger of a new era, but the field is dominated by the Web versions of established titles. Lots of big news holes exist to be filled by feisty original content, but doing so is expensive, and media outlets often cough at the cost of running such an operation. If newspapers survived the phone, radio, and TV, they can survive the Internet. But will what's left be worth reading? Caught cheating
Plagiarism is one of the great plagues of the academy. A group of Berkeley researchers and alumni discovered that cheating had shot through the roof at their alma mater-up 744 percent from 1993-1997. With help from the Internet, which has contributed to the problem, they decided to fight back. They built a website called to help teachers turn the tide. Papers fed into the site are compared against a huge database. Then a report is sent back to the instructor showing similarities to what it finds. The site keeps an eye on so-called "term paper mills," where students can grab some pre-fab homework for as much as $9 per page. "When students understand that their papers will be evaluated by a computer, against an enormous database containing an unknown variety of other papers, they will think twice before cheating," boast's creators on the site. This won't kill all cheating, since the Net is bottomless and the old-fashioned tricks like frat-house paper files still exist. All the tricks in the world won't stop people from cheating on term papers, but now more of them will get caught.

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