FEEDING FRENZY: The cynical overkill of stories like the Ramsey murder squeezes out news that matters
Five summers ago, in the weeks before terrorists slammed fully loaded passenger planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, national television was obsessed with what? The Taliban? Osama bin Laden? Nope. Sharks. To be precise: Killer sharks menacing beaches. Sounds as if there’s a good movie in there somewhere. Whether the broadcasters were for or against the sharks was never quite clear. Their sense of high purpose no doubt restrained them from taking sides.
These days it is just as difficult to figure out where the networks and cable outlets stand in the pressing case of JonBenet Ramsey. The pretty six-year-old is, of course, still dead, as now is her mother — of natural causes (cancer, if you were wondering). But her dad is still alive and able to stand media trial for allowing his wife to enter the girl in beauty pageants. And, by the way, too bad TV all but convicted the couple for killing their daughter a decade earlier. How time flies.
When history repeats itself, at least according to that godless old communist Karl Marx, the first time is tragedy, the second time is farce. Marx may have been wrong about economics, but he was certainly prescient about the mass media. Does the name Richard Jewell ring a bell? He was the mad bomber of the Atlanta Olympics, except it turned out he wasn’t. Remember Chandra Levy? She was the young woman from hometown America who interned in Washington and apparently had an affair with Congressman Garry Condit that same summer sharks were threatening the nation’s coastal integrity. That Condit was a sleaze was enough for most of the media to all but convict him of Levy’s murder.
Now comes John Mark Karr, another sleaze ball of even grander proportions. Once married to a 13-year-old, Karr was so fascinated with the 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas that he moved to the hometown of her killer, Richard Allen Davis. His interest in Michael Jackson was surpassed only by his obsession with the Ramsey case. That he “confessed” and was taken into custody in Thailand, the international capital of pedophilia, was almost too good to be true, at least from the point of view of assignment editors. Only the Vatican would have been better. Think of all those swishy vestments.
What are the lessons in all of this? There are several, none at all edifying.
First, there is the role of big media, increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-smaller group of monopolists who cravenly peddle the news as if it were an off-the-shelf commodity like some synthetic-cheese product. The men and women who control and staff broadcasting are, for the most part, well educated and should know better. But instead of harboring elite values, as Republican and conservative critics would have you believe, they are — more often than not — creatures of the marketplace, intent on playing to the lowest common denominator. (The irony that critics of the media usually champion the marketplace is, conveniently, lost in the shuffle.) When politically inconvenient news like the failure of the war on drugs or the even-more-massive failure of President’s Bush’s war in Iraq or his campaign against civil liberties does make it to the air waves, it is in spite of — not because of — the broadcasters and their corporate masters.
And then there is our own societal obsession with pedophilia, a vile and unspeakable crime, to be sure. But stories like the JonBenet-murder case allow us to have it both ways; to be smug and superior — and virtuously horrified — while never having to come to grips with the true enormity of child abuse writ large. Somewhere around 1.3 million children are savagely beaten or abandoned by their parents every year; add to that those who suffer more subtle but equally real mistreatment and the number climbs even higher. Can this situation ever be eradicated? Probably not. Consider the more than 20 years it took to expose the Catholic Church’s organized institutional indifference to clergy members’ sexual abuse of children — certainly criminal in spirit — and you begin to understand not just the magnitude of the problem, but the odds against addressing it. Wallowing in the details of young Ramsey’s murder may make us feel better, but it will be DNA, not the ingredients and method of preparation of Karr’s in-flight shrimp dish that will or will not lead to a conviction. That too gets lost in the shuffle.
The cynical overkill of stories like the Ramsey murder squeezes out news that matters, whether it be the under-reported combat and political failures in now all-but-forgotten Afghanistan, or the scandalous widespread failure of Katrina relief and rebuilding efforts, or cultural and artistic stories of mid-rank that are not sexy or commercially potent enough to penetrate the mind-numbing sieve that envelops most broadcast news.
What’s to be done? Not much. In this age of Bush, prayer might offer some hope. But the chances of relief from that front are about the same as counting on political action to bust the monopolies that control the media. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, monopoly media vowed to eschew trivia and return to reporting essentials. Now let’s not kid ourselves: trivia and entertainment have always enjoyed a large place in the news. And that’s just fine. But anyone who hoped for even a touch of relief has been sadly disappointed. Today’s latest JonBenet update brings that sad truth into stark focus.