The Spectacle of the News.
This week Jared Loughner's creepy mugshot has been ubiquitous in the TV news broadcasts. The story attracted the attention of the entire nation because it was a brutal incident that nearly took the life of a public leader. But as the hard facts surrounding the case dwindled, the news coverage took on an element of farce.
On Wednesday night, another piece of hard news presented itself and news casters feasted. President Barack Obama attended a memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting at the University of Arizona. After the event, television pundits immediately pounced on Obama's speech weighing in on whether it was a good or not. But, what does the art of rhetoric have to do with the lives lost?
One pundit weighed in to say that the speech would have been "much better" had Obama not lectured his audience and called on them to keep the tone of political discourse civil. There were also a few moments spent on the appropriateness of the emotion expressed by the attendees of the memorial. Was is right that they cheered for the victims or not?
The farce continued today during the White House press briefing. The reporters proceeded to eruct a stream of questions that all basically boiled down to "Wow, the President feels, huh?" How Obama arrived at his feelings of empathy was much scrutinized. "Robert [Gibbs], was there much study of previous presidential speeches following a national tragedy of this nature?" Mr. Obama's press secretary, who no doubt could be better occupied at that moment, say actually answering questions about things that matter, was called upon to attest to the fact that the President really does have feelings.
Obama was able to emote when he heard of the tragic event and then he rose even higher by conveying said emotion in his speech. Perhaps his speechwriters did not even read previous presidential speeches in times of national tragedies. They just knew how to feel, too.
"I'm wondering if you can say anything about how the president has personally wrestled with this... Has he had clergy members in to pray with him or...?" one reporter asked, greedy for the back-door details. It was surprising that no one actually asked, "can you go step by step and describe how Obama heard of the news and then what he said immediately after? Did the Obamas talk about it in bed?"
The conversation moved on to speculation on how and when the President might emote again. "Do you think his ability to connect on that particular issue has been enhanced by the nature of this tragedy? Or did his speech last night reflect a new approach to his sharing -- sharing some more of his emotions in public?"
There were some bold conjectures: this tragic event might sweeten the tone of the normally serious politics-laden State of the Union. Would Obama walk out in tears?
This character study seems entirely senseless and only makes a mockery of something that is of the utmost seriousness, a tragic shooting.
This circus reminds me of the most circu-licious event of all of 2010: the miners rescue. The entire event was like a reality TV show during which no meaningful information was given in the news. Instead, the audience was offered the same experience over and over again - a man coming out of the depth of a mine, alive. That such an event might have relevance for the immediate audience of Copiapó is understandable. But what valuable information is my friend in Metlakatla, Alaska going to gain by watching this spectacle?
The excitement that led up to the miners' rescue and the tears that accompanied it left few reporters clear-eyed enough to write anything about mining conditions in Chile, the causes of the collapse, the compensation the humble miners -who were now being masqueraded and paraded about, will receive. These issues, which actually address serious elements of the story, which strike at universal problems such as social justice, fair pay, workers' rights, were not discussed. But, when I say "Chi Chi Chi," I bet we all know what comes after that.
The Arizona shooting coverage incident is no different. There has been some tepid talk about gun laws on the news circuit. During the briefing, one daring reporter asked whether this incident would affect the Administration's work on gun laws?
"The assault weapons ban has expired. Apparently the sort of extended clip that this individual was able to obtain, he would not have been able to obtain had it been in force. Where is the administration on gun control generally, the extension of the assault weapons ban in particular?"
Should we open a debate on the issue, especially the assault gun? Is the name "assault" only testament to someone's wry sense of humor or it is portentous? In any event, the issue was quickly brushed aside to return to the juiciest bone, what did the president feel?
It seems safe to say that as a human being President Obama has feelings. It seems safe to say that as a political leader he probably had an agenda to hit with that speech -- rally the nation, talk about unity and the need for peaceful political debate. But what was in his heart? Well, we will never know because after all he has a role to play. He knew what was expected of him and he delivered.
When someone dies, usually there is a funeral. As the relatives and friends remember the departed some cry, some laugh. And then there comes a time to be silent. No one would think of endlessly parading those who were at the deceased's bedside in front of his friends, family and neighbors to recount, recreate what happened as he exhaled each breath. No one could stand it. It would seem completely inappropriate. Is doing it on the national stage less indecorous?
Can the news treat the issues with the gravitas they deserves? Should the reporter's greatest skill be pathos?