04/25/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

What If They Blew Up a Small Town in the Heartland? (And Nobody Cared?)


Not all tragedies are covered equally. Of the two major explosions in the news last week, the unfolding Boston Marathon story certainly received more attention than the deadlier blast in West, Texas. In some ways this is understandable. In the news' narrative, Boston emerged as a triumph of police work and patriotism, while West, Texas remains an official mystery. And an "ongoing investigation" does not lend itself to electrifying footage.

News coverage of funerals in West stood in stark contrast to Boston's lock-down, manhunt drama. While Boston sought justice, the citizens of West, Texas appeared to be looking for "closure." 

Although investigations remain ongoing, many suspect that the Texas tragedy has resulted from an industrial accident at a grossly under-regulated fertilizer plant. 

In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, labor reporter Mike Elk recalls a time when industrial accidents were taken more seriously. He cites a fatal 1968 mine accident in West Virginia that inspired four consecutive nights of coverage from CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. That exposure, Elk contends, may have inspired the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, the first of its kind.

But it's not just the TV news that has changed over the past 45 years. Some laissez faire attitudes towards business "freedom" and an assumption of resistance to government regulation appear to be baked into the cake of our popular culture. 
I've long been struck by how many highly rated cable television reality shows nearly always celebrate the industries with highest rates of workplace fatalities. Fishing and logging consistently rank as the most deadly and dangerous professions. "Deadliest Catch" and "Axe-Men" have remained cable favorites and have spawned any number of imitation series about professions that are an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulator's nightmare. Driving trucks over frozen rivers ("Ice Road Truckers"). Freelance gold mining and dredging ("Bering Sea Gold"). Amateur bug exterminating ("Billy the Exterminator"). Wrestling reptiles in dark waters ("Swamp People"). The more dangerous, the better.

Such shows offer a male audience vicarious tough-guy status while titillating them with the whiff of imminent death and/or dismemberment. Safety inspectors have no place in this man's world. 

Chief among the unregulated professions on reality TV is the hi-tech pursuit of poltergeists ("Ghost Hunters"), a branch of reality TV that seems to appeal to gullible folks who think of "Ghost Busters" as a historical documentary. 

Come to think about it, even that 1984 comedy seemed steeped in an anti-regulatory mood. "Ghostbusters" emerged from the rebellious attitudes of "National Lampoon" and "SNL" and espoused an anarchic philosophy. The Ghostbusters were the ultimate amateur freelancers, unfettered knuckleheads literally playing with the forces of darkness. The villain of the piece was Walter Peck (William Atherton), a fussy regulator from the EPA who wants to shut them down. And just to ensure we know he's a bad guy (and less than a man), Bill Murray's character, Dr. Peter Venkman calls him "dickless" -- several times. 

It may seem insensitive, at the very least, to invoke the ectoplasmic eruption in "Ghostbusters" while discussing a tragedy that claimed at least 15 lives. But it's worth thinking about how much our political/entertainment culture has ridiculed and feminized the impulse towards regulation and safety ("the Nanny State") while imparting masculine vigor to a reverence for workplace danger. In cable TV's macho world, safety is for sissies.

As Elk's op-ed makes clear, this was not always the case. And a little historical perspective on the need for safety regulations would be helpful. But where does one go looking for history in this environment? The History Channel -- the place one might turn to for documentaries on The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Love Canal or Bhopal -- is too busy broadcasting "Ax Men" and "Ice Road Truckers."

It's difficult to gauge how much popular culture contributes to these entrenched attitudes. But at a time when both the political conversation and television entertainment are so radically skewed by extreme cartoon gender stereotypes, we may have reached a point when we are literally entertaining ourselves to death.