Monday, April 11, 2005

Not All Deaths are Equal

Throughout modern times since the invention of mass communication systems such as cheap newspapers and radio and television, since 1800, a curious thing has been noticed. Namely, the death of one person excites more interest than the death of many people. Over and over, the singular trumps the many. Why is this? Just recently, we watched in horror as the death of one very severely brain damaged woman held not only public attention but the entire governance of the nation, hostage. She was no more interesting than millions of other nearly identical situations. Yet it became a vast media circus that had devoted followers and readers.

Back when Dickens first was serialized, there came a famous moment when all the English speaking world was on tenderhooks wondering about the fate of Little Nell. When ships came in from England that week, people would besiege the passengers and crew for breaking news about Little Nell, a fictional waif. Businessmen seriously discussed her condition on Wall Street. The same thing happened with "Uncle Tom's Cabin" when it was serialized.

As I suggested earlier, reading "Only Yesterday" is a perennial exercise in understanding our culture and our ways of thinking.

From chapter VIII:Floyd Collins was an obscure young Kentuckian who had been exploring an underground passage five miles from Mammoth Cave, with no more heroic purpose than that of finding something which might attract lucrative tourists. Some 125 feet from daylight he was caught by a cave in which pinned his foot under a huge rock. So narrow and steep was the passage that those who tried to dig him out had to hitch along on their stomachs in cold slime and water and pass back from hand to hand the earth and rocks that they pried loose with hammers and blow-torches. Only a few people might have heard of Collins's predicament if W. B. Miller of the Louisville Courier-Journal had not been slight of stature, daring, and an able reporter. Miller wormed his way down the slippery, tortuous passageway to interview Collins, became engrossed in the efforts to rescue the man, described them in vivid dispatches-and to his amazement found that the entire country was turning to watch the struggle. Collins's plight contained those elements of dramatic suspense and individual conflict with fate which make a great news story, and every city editor, day after day, planted it on page one. When Miller arrived at Sand Cave he had found only three men at the entrance, warming themselves at a fire and wondering, without excitement, how soon their friend would extricate himself. A fortnight later there was a city of a hundred or more tents there and the milling crowds had to be restrained by barbed-wire barriers and state troops with drawn bayonets; and on February 17, 1925, even the New York Times gave a three- column page-one headline to the news of the denouement:


     FIND FLOYD COLLINS DEAD IN CAVE TRAP ON 18TH DAY;      LIFELESS AT LEAST 24 HOURS; FOOT MUST BE AMPUTATED TO      GET BODY OUT


Within a month, as Charles Merz later reminded the readers of the New Republic, there was a cave-in in a North Carolina mine in which 71 men were caught and 53 actually lost. It attracted no great notice. It was "just a mine disaster." Yet for more than two weeks the plight of a single commonplace prospector for tourists riveted the attention of the nation on Sand Cave, Kentucky. It was an exciting show to watch, and the dispensers of news were learning to turn their spotlights on one show at a time.


For the last year we have watched a seemingly endless number of death watches and funerals which occupy precious mental real estate. Each one follows close on the heels of the next. But when a national TV group decided to merely list the names and show the pictures of the dead soldiers killed in Iraq, the right wing and many others recoiled in horror and made a big to do about how this is invading something very private, a funeral! And it was rude and irritating and so on. A big no no!

Then they happily sat down with the hankies to watch dying individuals who really matter little and weeping while watching it for endless hours. The rest of us have been driven to turning off the news pretty much permanently. I don't watch the news on TV any more at all. Which suits the right wing just fine. Now we will be accused of being irresponsible and "no one is interested in the news".

It is truly odd, the right wing likes to talk about "The Culture of Life" and yet our media seems obsessed with death at the behest of these same people. When we contrast the maudlin displays of sorrow about the dead civilians killed on 9/11 and then see the utter indifference to the dead Americans killed by the Great Sumatran Tsunami...bet you don't know how many Americans died that morning! It was more than one, more then ten, more than one hundred. Barely noticed here. Soon, it was Terri, 24/7. Now that she has been shoved aside by the Pope who amazingly died of old age at home in his palace, she will be forgotten and replaced by a child in a well or a lost puppy or something else, a kitten trapped in a tree. The press and media run around trying to find stories. Meanwhile, our systems fall apart and we are asleep at the wheel.

The NYT ran a curious piece that made no sense at all:
EXTRA! EXTRA! Read not quite everything about it!"

The timing of both the cadaver story and the Clinton review, and their consequent claim on front-page real estate, are symptoms of a persistent genetic disposition. Some newspaper people seem to regard beating the competition as the opposable thumb of journalism, an essential characteristic that distinguishes winners from losers. I think it's more like the tailbone, a vestigial remnant from the era when reporters were still swinging from the trees - that distant time when New York had eight daily papers, and newsboys in knickers prowled the streets shouting "Extra!" whenever their papers had something the other guys didn't.

I call the New York Times "the New York Olds" because they take forever to cover important news stories. I had a commenatry about the coming anti Japanese riots in China a week before the riots, commented on the riots as they happened and then the NYT mentions riots in China. Wow. Talk about backwards. I have broken news stories in the past and getting the attention of the media is like pulling splinters from a child who insists on running into the next room, screaming. It is not easy.

The choices of front page news is no mystery. The media exists to distract as much as inform. This is why a mass demonstration against US occupation in Iraq when a gigantic crowd of potentially dangerous people shouted for us to leave Iraq, this barely made the news, much less front page. When 18 Americans died in a helicopter downing, this dissappeared somewhere on the back pages, overwhelmed by the howls about a Pope dying of old age. The historic climb in oil prices, I remember when Clinton was President, if it went up four cents, it was headlines. It goes up ten times that and there is near silence.

This is why nothing, absolutely nothing is being done about high fuel costs. There are few headlines about this. Everyone I talk to wants to, without my prompting, talk about this. I met a man who bought one of my Geo Metros yesterday. He mentioned high oil prices, I said, "Do you know why?" and he said, "I think we are at the Hubbert Oil Peak".

Eagerly, I questioned him. Turns out, he found this on the web. He even read some of my stuff. When he learned who I was, he was shocked. Small world! The NYT mentioned the Peak OIl issue only this year. In Congress, the words, "Hubbert Oil Peak" was spoken to a nearly empty House only this last two weeks! Instead, it is, "Look, over there! Little Nell!"

Little Nell is dead.

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