04/16/2013 06:41 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

The Kabuki Theater of American Tragedies

The ultimate paradox in media and public life is that when we most ardently seek information, we get the most bullshit. This anomaly is unavoidable: competitive non-stop media outlets must respond to our anxiety-fueled need to explain what often times can't be explained ultimately, and certainly not in the near run. For as soon as real information becomes available, all outlets immediately seize and broadcast it. Until then, all we get is skuttlebutt or what those who actually are in the know choose to reveal. (Think about how the real story of the assassination of Osama bin Laden took years to leak out.)

In place of real information, we get law enforcement, homeland security, and political figures in front of microphones and on podiums doing their thing -- that is, aggrandizing themselves.

This phenomenon was evident in every press conference and interview following the Boston Marathon bombing, taking as its epitome the press conference led by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick the day after the tragedy.

Misinformation. In the mayhem following a tragedy, all sorts of information is broadcast on no other basis than that each media outlet, struggling to outdo the others, wholesales any rumors it gets wind of. Much of this information -- if not the whole narrative -- is bound to be false. Thus, we heard there were additional explosives that law enforcement detonated in addition to the two that maimed and killed bystanders to the race. This turns out to have been untrue. So several speakers at the next-day, "definitive" news conference were able to take up good time dispelling this misinformation. With what relief they were able to say this information was false! Of course, this simply left us where we were after the first news broke -- two bombs were exploded at the race.

Vamping. "Vamping" is the term for the circumlocutions speakers use when they have nothing to say.* You can always tell when media people are doggie paddling -- they say the same things over and over again, report there is no new information but that when any appears they will surely let us know (thanks!), and use as many words to say nothing as possible. Thus, the single phrase that best indicates you are participating in a kabuki theater media exercise is "at this point in time," as in, "We don't know that at this point in time," when "We don't know that at this point," "We don't know that yet," or -- most succinctly -- "We don't know" would all suffice.

Back-patting -- law enforcement. Tragedies are great times for public officials to pat themselves -- and those whose asses they want to kiss -- on the back. Which is funny, when you think of it, since the attack that just ocurred in some sense bespeaks a failure of the law enforcement, homeland security, and politicians who stake their reputations on preventing these events. Thus, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino lauded all levels of law enforcement for their coordination following the attack at the marathon. Is this true -- who the hell knows? But we may suspect that the typical inter-agency competition and backstabbing that goes on remains in full force. And, anyhow, we're glad they're cooperating now -- but isn't it a little bit late?

Political ass-kissing. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren -- who has as much guts as anyone in American government -- began her press conference appearance by lauding President Obama (of whom she has been critical around his proposed cuts in Social Security and with whom she needs to mend fences) for reaching out to EVERYBODY in the city and state -- the mayor, governor, members of the legislative delegation -- following the bombing. Am I the only one who thinks -- "So what?" (The "so what," of course, is to let people know that the President is a deeply involved and concerned political and human figure -- which will presumably get more Democratic votes somewhere down the line.)

Political point scoring. The most reprehensible activity conducted during these media events is scoring points for political positions that people might otherwise challenge -- but who can do so in the midst of a tragedy? Thus, New York Republican Congressman Peter King was interviewed about preventing the recurrence of such tragedies. King is one of the most visible members of Congress on these occasions, since he is a member of both the Committees for Homeland Security and for Intelligence. As the chair of Homeland Security, King famously held hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims, to the dismay of average Muslim-Americans. In the current case, King asserted the rightness of filming every moment of Americans' lives in public places: "Just ask the parents of the eight-year-old who was killed whether they mind being videoed!" (Although the child was horribly murdered WITH all the cameras in place in downtown Boston near the finish of the world-famous Boston race.) While we're at it, let's just set up cameras in everyone's house too, so that we can see when people may be creating bombs at home.

And, at the end, if everything claimed by political and law enforcement and homeland security figures is realized, and the murderer or murderers are apprehended, will we really have any better explanation for why three people senselessly died and scores were injured and maimed? Or, at least, any that we are willing to hear.


* The term originates with Vaudevillians tap-dancing et al. on stage when they have no act prepared.