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Mary Mapes

Mary Mapes

Posted: June 12, 2007 01:09 PM

Lost in Paris


LOS ANGELES - We can all stand down now. It's finally over. Barbara Walters has spoken with Paris, who has been speaking with God, who must be speechless about our behavior last week.

Maybe now, with this first jailhouse interview out of the way, with this moment of calm upon us, we can do what Paris says she is doing -- reflect on our lives.

We have a lot to think about.

I was there briefly on the day that Hilton turned herself in to begin her sentence for violating probation. Outside the Century Regional Detention Facility south of Los Angeles, a clutch of cameras and a pack of reporters lined both sides of a brick path leading into the building. Parispalooza was about to begin.

It was a moment that laid out in stark relief the great distance between what gets our attention and what doesn't, what gets covered and what gets ignored. What did we miss while we were lost in Paris?

I saw reporters outside the women's jail watch without interest as a parade of disheveled visitors streamed into the building to spend time with mothers, wives, and daughters gone wrong.

None of them seemed to see the men scurry past carrying sleeping babies. They didn't notice the tough 12 year old with an unlit cigarette stuffed in his mouth and pants that didn't quite cover his rear end. They missed the tired grandmother who limped to the entrance, dragging a temperamental toddler and struggling with a squirming baby.

The journalists yawned and stretched and paid almost no attention as the faces of poverty, ignorance, racial intolerance, mental illness and want walked past them on the newly created "red carpet" into the jail.

Reporters here were waiting for the real news -- the arrival of a woman famous for writhing in and out of nightclubs, blowing kisses at cameras and doing something similar to a former boyfriend on a personal video turned promotional tool.

The spokesman for the L.A. County Sheriff's office Steve Whitmore was facing a frantic week of nonstop interviews. But no one was interested at all in the issues that dominate daily life at the jail: overcrowding, gang violence, immigration, drug and alcohol use, recidivism.

On the day I talked to him, Whitmore, a former reporter himself, looked over the scene outside the jail -- the snakes' nests of cables, satellite trucks, microwave vans, chatting producers and dozing soundmen. A ribbon of yellow crime scene tape held back reporters and photographers ready and willing to go feral at the arrival of Paris Hilton. He shook his head.

"You know, there comes a time when somebody has to say 'no'," Whitmore told me. "I mean, the news business was designed to do something other than this."

A pretty, local TV reporter didn't feel that way. She told me she believed that viewers wanted this kind of coverage, that they are interested in the heiress' story. She said she'd just heard someone talking about it at the 7-11 where she'd stopped on her way to the jail. That means it's news, right?

She described Hilton as "brilliant. Well, her or her handlers are. They got all of us here, didn't they?"

At the same time that reporters were massing at the jail, just a short drive up the freeway at Los Angeles National Cemetery, a military family was learning a hard lesson about what happens when you don't have good handlers.

Daniel Cagle's friends and family watched as his body was lowered into the ground. There was little public notice of the 22 year old soldier's death or his funeral or his family's pain. His mother stood by the open grave clutching a folded American flag. She laid a rose on the casket and told her son she loved him.

Cagle had been killed two weeks earlier when he and a fellow soldier were on patrol near Ramadi. At the funeral, mourners recounted that Cagle had heard reports that an Iraqi family had been murdered. Investigating the story, he and his partner approached a house to speak with two men who were waiting outside. It was a setup. The men detonated explosives hidden on their bodies.

Cagle's partner, Sgt. Stephen Butcher, died instantly. Cagle was being flown to medical help when he slipped away.

He slipped away here at home, too. There were no crowds of fans or jostling cameras, no news helicopters overhead or hours of cable coverage. There were no special reports. Just the tears of friends and family. Just a military cemetery with its sea of tombstones, the silence broken by the roar of a nearby freeway.

This sprawling cemetery has little room left for soldiers killed in the current war. Cagle is squeezed into a section dominated by veterans who died in the 1970s, a young warrior sent to spend eternity surrounded by men who died of old age.

There was one local TV camera at the funeral, at least briefly, spraying the scene, talking to no one, then packing up and leaving. Larry Altman believes he was the only reporter at the service. He says the paper he works for in Torrance, "The Daily Breeze," always covers the deaths of soldiers from the area. He told me that the newspeople who missed the funeral to cover Paris Hilton must have done that "because they were forced to." He says he's grateful he didn't have to join in.

Altman believes Paris Hilton gets so much coverage because "Nancy Grace or someone has decided 'this is the news.' "

Maybe Nancy Grace IS serving as some kind of national assignment desk. There is a mountain of evidence that she -- or at least someone with her tabloid sensibilities -- is determining what is news and what is not.

For many reporters and for many Americans, the loss of Daniel Cagle and the other soldiers killed this past week in Iraq are non-events -- tiny blips that melt into the blur of bad news from the war and the more photogenic, more fun, more fabulous news from Paris.

It seems that for the people making decisions about what Americans read and see and care about, Paris Hilton's life is simply more interesting than Daniel Cagle's death.

That is more than just a sad truth about junk food journalism or our human tendency to gawk at car wrecks rather than analyze what causes them. Our apparent disinterest in the hard details of daily life played a role in our entry into Iraq. It will help determine how many others will die there - and what becomes of those sleeping kids being carried into the L.A. County women's jail.

Reality needs better handlers.