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Crisis, Inc.
by Brian S. Wise
12 August 2002

The media is creating a very large industry out of relatively small amounts of suffering.



Two or three years ago, whenever it was the first bird with the West Nile virus dropped down around these parts, you author had what has since become a common (if not nationwide) thought: How is it 10,000 illegal aliens can make it into the country every single day without the slightest hint of detection, yet we can find this one bird with the West Nile virus without any trouble? Indeed; and you wouldn’t be unwise to wonder how many hundreds – no, thousands – of people have been killed this summer by the West Nile virus. Well, seven, as of this writing, though something like sixty-five others are known to be infected. That’s roughly 72 people, out of a nation of 270,000,000.

Don’t misunderstand: in no way is it being suggested those 72 people don’t matter, they do. (It’s the dead birds that don’t matter.) But the fact that we are speaking of 72 people (seven dead, remember) and not the hundreds or thousands you would believe have been infected if you have watched the news anytime in the last week. This can lead the conscious mind to wonder, How many of our recent outbreaks of crisis are legitimate (in the strictest analytical sense) and how many represent the media’s connecting of dots, with dramatic license, for a receptive audience?

First thing’s first: common and tragic occurrences over a brief period of time can certainly warrant consideration, provided they’re atypical. Last fall’s anthrax attacks are a fine example; they deserved extensive coverage not only because they were atypical, but because they may have been an extension of the Tragedies. The West Nile virus has been a story on the East coast and Midwest each summer for three years. Rates of infection will slow and the number of deaths will at first decrease, then stop, as time passes and awareness grows. Toward the end of this awareness, it’s good to have the media bounding about … but it’s overdone.

Summer brings about a traditional slowing of the news cycle, and because it’s still one month to go before the first anniversary of the Tragedies, lesser stories are being elevated. (They are every year; remember last summer’s daily, major shark attack updates? They were end-of-the-news stories at best, but there was just nothing else going on before the fateful day in September, and so they were top of the news fare for weeks.) This elevating is all at once irritating and understandable; there are 24 hours in a day, through no fault of the news networks, and they have taken it upon themselves to fill every one of them with something, to whatever their overall intellectual detriment.

Media has become so preoccupied with certain stories, and certain types of stories, its desire to ask basic, logical (one could call them “journalistic”) questions has evaporated entirely. Consider the two California girls who were kidnapped from their boyfriends and raped before their assailant was mercifully shot to death. Since their rescue, the girls (aged 16 and 17) have become semi-celebrities, going so far as to sucker a pair of $80 pants from a Today show staffer before making an appearance with Katie Couric last week. No one seemed to mention they were taken from a lovers lane, at two in the morning. What happened to them was of individual tragedy, but how is it no one took the time to ask, “What are 16 and 17-year-old girls going out cavorting at two a.m., and did your parents know what you were out doing (or attempting to do)?”

You may be thinking, “All right, all right, but there’s always been girls and / or parents like that. What’s your point?” This: media has created a very large cottage industry out of the suffering that exists, although prominently, within very, very few lives, too often at the expense of other, more important news stories. India and Pakistan’s most recent skirmish over Kashmir, which had threatened to become a nuclear war, was non-existent in the American press for three days because Chandra Levy’s body had been found in Rock Creek Park. So we had wall to wall Chandra for three days, at which point India and Pakistan were finally mentioned. But with all deference to the Levy family, the discovery of her Chandra’s body isn’t even in the same hemisphere as a potential nuclear war over Kashmir.

Here and there, media will pick up on its folly and make note of it (though never expressing a real desire to return to hard news reporting), which works in some variation of the following scenario: a soccer mom pandering media beats the story of the week into the ground, driving even those who care most about it to hang their heads in dismay. At this point, the attention is turned back onto the media, which produces a few exposes asking no one in particular whether or not they reported on Story X irresponsibly. (Fox News was good for this when it came to the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping.) You think so? What gave it away, exactly, the special graphics and music prompting each non-consequential and repetitive update? Or maybe the in-depth interviews about the matter with people who have no rational connection to the authorities investigating the case, or the exact details.

As this column is being written (about four o’clock Monday morning), there are details concerning two separate incidents about which the reader may be unaware. The first is, Iran (which is slowly coming around) has turned over 16 al Qaeda to Saudi Arabia; and the other is, Jason Priestley broke his back yesterday in a race car accident. If you don’t believe me, pay casual attention to the news channels for the next 12 hours, and see which story gets the most publicity. In this you’ll see exactly what I mean.

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