RUSH OF EVENTS ALTERS PERCEPTIONS

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If Rupert Murdoch had tried to start the Fox network today it probably would have failed. It would have received such frenzied hype Fox could have never lived up to expectations.

That's the message Barry Diller-who got Fox underway for Mr. Murdoch-brought to the American Magazine Conference last week. Life was slower and simpler way back in 1988, and Mr. Diller said people pretty much left Fox alone, to grow at its own pace.

Today, events have piled up on each other to the point where there is "a rush to judgment, " Mr. Diller said. "It used to be that there was a cadence, a rhythm to things. It would take a reasonable length of time to play out the analysis."

You can see this overpowering "rush to judgment" occurring in this fall's congressional elections. The drum beaters created the impression Republicans were going to wipe out their Democratic opponents. Expectations were built to such heights that if Republicans don't gain control of the Senate and make huge gains in the House they will be deemed unsuccessful. Even if they register normal gains for an off-year election, or even a little better, the Republicans will be seen as going down in ignominious flames, and President Clinton's agenda will be widely proclaimed as vindicated.

Once a perception of events has set in, it's hard to change it. As Mr. Diller said, conventional wisdom is that the information superhighway is "off track, it's delayed, it's not meeting anyone's expectation." In an era of instant fulfillment, "it's as if it was going to take place in an hour-and-a-half."

Earlier, at the Association of National Advertisers conference down the road, Don Logan, CEO of Time Inc., said his first order of business when he took over was to try to rein in enthusiasm for Time Warner's test of its 500-channel system in Orlando.

I'm not sure he's succeeded because by now the hype and hyperbole concerning the information superhighway has taken on a life of its own. And just like the Republicans are destined to lose this fall even if they win, Time's Orlando test will have a difficult time establishing its success. The bar has been raised to impossible heights.

If the press has to take partial blame for raising expectations, it also must take the rap for spreading cynicism and gullibility. "Cynicism has become the national religion, and you people have become the high priests and priestesses," said Susan Estrich of the University of Southern California Law Center. "We all play the game of gotcha with such fervor and skill. We're destroying public confidence on everything."

On the other hand, Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "Who Stole Feminism; How Women Have Betrayed Women, " accused magazine editors of "abandoning their critical faculties." She said that editors display "uncritical credulity" toward feminist claims and causes and are "extremely wary" of anything contrary.

"Journalists have a saying, `When your mother says she loves you, check it out.' What's happened to that?" Ms. Sommers concluded.

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