If Not Awe, Shock Will Do

Tim RussertFriday’s news about the sudden death of Meet the Press host Tim Russert was one more occasion for the 24-hour news business to have a feeding frenzy.

Russert, after spending the week with his family in Italy, flew back to Washington on Thursday ahead of his wife and son, to prepare for his Sunday talk show. According to reports from his colleagues at NBC, he was taping promotional spots for his upcoming show when he collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack.

Friday morning as he went to work at his Washington news bureau, most likely with a copy of the venerable Washington Post at or near his side, how could he possibly imagine that he would be tomorrow’s headline. News reporters in general are uncomfortable with being the news. I think Russert would have been uneasy with the wall-to-wall chatter that his death stirred on the 24-hour news networks, who launched into an 18-hour Russert watch from the time his colleague, Tom Brokaw, went on the air to announce his sudden death until mid-Saturday morning when floods in Iowa pushed their way into the top story slot.

The 24-hour news channels have warped our sense of news reducing it down to a type of sensationalism that was once the domain of neighborhood gossips. Remember when there was an “incident” last year aboard an American Airlines jet? While know one knew what happened, CNN, FOX, and CNBC, showed several hours of footage of the aircraft parked at the gate, telling us that a “tense situation was unfolding.”

Not really, but hey the ratings got a small bump, so the guys and gals in sales were pleased.

Having grown up in a neighborhood of endless apartment buildings in New York City, retirees were our Larry King, Anderson Cooper, and Keith Olbermann. For example, two bad boys would get into a fight in my neighborhood, one would pull a knife, someone got stabbed, rarely fatal, and our elder scouts would stake out there place on the street and tell everyone who wanted to know what the fuss was all about, exactly what happened and why. Of course each one had a somewhat different version of the story but after getting briefed by three or four of these local town criers you could get a general idea of what events had transpired.

The digital age has pushed the neighborhood gossips into a very small corner. Now the news comes into your home and lurches ahead from one “shocking” story to the next. We don’t need to know why Mr. Murphy in apartment 2G lost his temper and sent Mrs. Murphy to the hospital, when we have high speed chases, possible kidnappings, and bomb threat evacuations to keep us entertained.

In truth, very few of these items are what they are packaged to be. September 11, that was shocking, Oklahoma bombing, shocking, the Katrina disaster, although it unfolded in a macabre slow motion, was also shocking.

But Russert? Don’t get me wrong, I thought he was a damn good newsman, and from what I saw a damn fine human being as well. But shocking? Well if the talking heads say so…

But what about all the 58 year-old men who are 40 or so pounds overweight, work in high stress jobs, and drive themselves to exhaustion who will die this week in much the same fashion that Tim Russert died last week?

And not just men. Women with similar profiles will be struck down, too. They will be accountants, teachers, attorneys, bus drivers, restaurant workers, retail clerks, stock brokers, dentists, and many others.

Russert’s death is “shocking” because we are told that it is. In fact, we’re told over and over again. Because as a general rule the fate of 99.9 percent of us is only reported in passing, as a generic statistic.

And what drama can be gleaned from government health statistics? As Josef Stalin once said in a bizarre reference to his own acts of mass murder: “Kill a million people you have a statistic. Kill one and you have a story…”

Sadly, the media shouts loudly, and we listen. The Russert story is “amazing, shocking, tragic, unbelievable…” and more, we are told. To tell you this happens all the time, everywhere, takes all the drama out of it. In one more example of Pavlovian conditioning, we have been trained to go from shock to shock to shock, and our ears perk up.

We put ourselves in front of our TVs. Only on occasion are we rewarded with the appearance of a little awe.

Martin Brown
SMW Money Editor