The profit in tragedy

How the media turn disaster into a maudlin mantra

The author, a retired Butte College English instructor, is a frequent contributor to the CN&R.

On the morning after the terrorist attack in Boston, The Sacramento Bee ran a page 6 story about a photographer for the Denver Post who had won a Pulitzer Prize for the pictures she took of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre. The winner is jubilant as other smiling staffers celebrate in the background.

Beneath that picture was another picture of a winner of journalism’s most prestigious prize, smiling ecstatically as she holds up the work that garnered recognition, a story about an off-duty police officer whose reckless driving had, according to the headline of the article she wrote, resulted in “Ruined lives.”

The disconnect between the happy prize winners and the stories that brought them their $10,000 prizes couldn’t have been more stark, and it explains why so many people hate the news media, seeing its purveyors as ghoulish exploiters of personal tragedy.

Then, as if to drive home the point, the unrelenting coverage of the Boston bombings featured a barrage of ghoulishness. There were pictures of the little boy who died, the young woman who died, and the people who’d lost limbs, all soaked in sentimentality and oversimplifications that turned the dead and injured into one-dimensional caricatures of carnage. The TV anchors solemnly intoned “prayers for the families,” and conferred praise for the “heroes who rushed to help the injured.” They stood on the bloody sidewalks and deplored the evil, and repeated the defiant declaration that we are not a nation that buckles to terrorists.

We are, of course, soured at the soul, not only by the acts themselves, but also by the maudlin media mantra that treats all these stories exactly the same, that sells us the bloodshed between commercials for Cialis.

Forty-two people died in a series of bombings across Iraq on the same day three Americans died in Boston, but that news was swallowed in the media wallow. We watched the same loop of video replayed endlessly while Anderson, Wolf and the rest intoned their banal comments about what an awful thing had happened, something we knew in the first 20 minutes, but were reminded of, nonstop, every moment of the days to come.

Such obsessive focus may serve the interests of the bombers, hyping the terror, and sickening us all with the exploitation of the evil. But who knows? There might be peer recognition for it somewhere down the line, a Pulitzer, perhaps. Or, if not that, a bump in the ratings, at least, or an uptick in ad revenues.