Friday, August 19, 2005

Pass the cameraman some salt

The frenzy around Cindy Sheehan has made me uneasy. In case you’ve been in an information vacuum over the past couple of weeks, Sheehan is the mother of a marine who was killed in action in Iraq, and she has recently made public statements to the effect that (a) the President is directly responsible for her son’s death, (b), we must withdraw all our troops from Iraq immediately, and (c) we must stop offering any support to Israel. She is entitled to her opinions, wrong though I may think they are. She is also entitled to her feelings, misdirected though I think her anger is. I don‘t really have a problem with her.

My problem is with the media circus which has exploded all around her. Every political opportunist for thousands of miles seems to have gravitated toward her, and they have piled their own agendas on top of hers, so that, under their magnification, her original grief has come to appear as a caricature of maternal loss. It can not be good for her. And I can not imagine that it is helping the rest of her family come to terms with the loss of one of their members. They may be in danger of losing Cindy, as well, to the media maelstrom, if it has not already happened.

For some reason, when nobody “important” is doing anything in Washington, D.C., the media masters seem to think that the only topic fit for consumption is mother-in-distress or girl-gone-wild. Let’s spend hour upon hour training our cameras on the mother of the girl who vanished on her senior trip to some tropical island. Or, perhaps we can get a few interviews with a runaway bride who resembles a deer caught in the headlights. Or, we can spend months talking about a severely bipolar mother who drowns her children -- the shock! the horror!... the excess! Does any of this exposure actually help the woman or her family? No. In fact, it quite often seems to make the fragile women shatter into even tinier shards. But it makes great footage for a ratings-hungry community. And it provides lots of new material for the late-night stand-up routines

In my view, this trend is dangerous. First and foremost, it pushes a person with an already fragile sense of self into a corner, where she can’t back away from a position, if it becomes uncomfortable, without losing face. That forces her to become more and more savagely defensive. In turn, it causes her further harm, as her position becomes untenable, her actions or her ideas indefensible. She and her supporters must become more outrageous than ever, or they will lose the camera’s focus, and the cause, the goal will slip away. That, then, brings the next person with a cause or a problem to feel the need to escalate in order to gain the public eye, to obtain much-needed help. Will the next self-pitying mother feel the need to immolate herself for her promised fifteen minutes of fame? And what will happen to those who love her?

Asking the reporters, the producers, the talking heads, and the political opportunists to stop making hay from the pain of these damaged people is asking a cannibal child to stop playing with his food. Lunch keeps throwing the ball back to them. But it is time for the cannibal to become a grown-up, and to change its diet, as well. There are plenty of ways to press a cause without offering a wounded person for its entree. There is plenty of real news going on in the world, so there need not ever be so great a focus on these self-destructive people. There are political revolutions going on in dozens of countries, there are medical revolutions going on in laboratories worldwide, there are technological revolutions taking place in our own back yard, and there are strong people doing great things every day, whose faces never grace the front of a news magazine or the opening segment of the nightly news.

But, I suppose a mother covered in sackcloth and ashes is more photogenic than a marine who perhaps knew and honored her son, covered in sweat and soot. She’s easy to find, she’s easy to use -- she’s the media equivalent of a box of Hostess Twinkies before dinner. No muss, no fuss, no effort at all in the thinking man’s kitchen -- just unwrap and toss on the table, and the kiddies are happy to sit and stuff themselves with something of little actual value or substance. But then, when supper time rolls around, there’s no room for the good, nutritious foods. Trust in the notion that the cook is genuinely concerned for the well-being of his diners begins to fade. People will start looking for new, better places to feed their minds. Meanwhile, the folks who took the lazy route will be the first ones served up on the next cook’s platter.

Further reading:
How not to treat a genuinely disturbed person:Daily Kos, Ann Coulter

Borderline:Cox & Forkum Sheehan cartoon & comments (with further linkage).

Wholly within acceptable limits:Arthur Chrenkoff
Robert Jamieson of the Seattle PI, via Sister Toldjah

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