The year has barely gotten underway and we already have had several extraordinary, hyped-up news stories. In each case, the actual event was not world-shaking, but lent itself wonderfully to media embroidery and exaggeration.
There was the euthanasia of Barbaro, the thoroughbred racehorse.
Then the love-crazed female astronaut who tried to kidnap and kill her
rival. Then the sudden and mysterious death of Anna Nicole Smith.
None of these events would cause more than a ripple in the world, or
even in our nation, if it weren't for the media hype. And that,
predictably, fed the public's appetite for pathos, scandal and drama.
Predictable? Yes. Because it's a lot easier to grieve over a dead
racehorse than over 80 Iraqi civilians killed one day in a marketplace.
It's simpler to grasp a woman's homicidal plot than to visualize the
starving and slaughtered populations in Africa. And it's a lot more
titillating to hear about the death of a multi-millionaire stripper than
to ponder the president's 2.77 trillion-dollar budget proposal.
Journalists know the difference between human interest stories and
"hard news." And when they pump up the relatively trivial item to epic
proportions, they are pandering to the lazy or maudlin or prurient
impulses in all of us. They know their audience.
The question then becomes: Why are we, the audience, enthralled by
Probably, it's a lot easier to relate to one single character (even
an equinine!) than a vast multitude. We may be identifying, projecting,
or even empathizing in a deep way -- albeit unconscious -- with the hero
or the villain or the victim. Or we may be finding some message or moral
in the story:
With Barbaro, we heard how a living creature was put out of his pain
and misery, with care and compassion. (Why don't we allow humans to make
this choice for themselves when their time comes?)
With Lisa Marie Nowak, the astronaut, we discovered that even the
exceptional, highly trained and talented person can have obsessive urges
and dark cravings that defy reason.
And with Anna Nicole Smith, we saw the last act of a modern morality
play, where Death vanquishes Greed and Vanity. (The sub-plot continues,
with three men claiming paternity of her child....and inheritance of her
Perhaps human beings simply are not able to grasp big ideas and
global concepts easily; or to expand their thoughts and feelings beyond
their own homes and neighborhoods; or to conceive of suffering beyond
their own experience. But in this world, which everyone agrees is
shrinking, we must learn to do this -- to understand the difference
between what is frivolous and ephemeral, and what is meaningful, urgent
More than new thinking, we need new feeling, And a vision that
really puts things in perspective.