The rain comes down in a halo of streetlight amber. Thousands of students stand silently in the road weeping. Behind the silence, a dozen power generators hum the TV stations’ live feeds. Quietly, tactlessly, a make-upped TV newsman turns to a female student with tears running down her face and asks, “Comment?”
When I saw the yellow sheets on Sabado Tarde on Friday night I didn’t see the students, I saw the headlines. A historic tragedy had just taken place, and the national eye was about to fix its hungry gaze on I.V. I saw the sensational leads and the photos with detailed cutlines. I saw the faux sincerity in the faces of the TV news reporters and the groundless insinuations that would creep into every biased story.
Many students on campus are furious with the national and statewide coverage that followed Friday night, and they should be. But what many fail to understand is that this is how our country always behaves when bad things happen in the 21st century. The vultures descend, they pick through the tragedy for fresh, meaty angles, and they fly off to the next kill.
Ours is a Culture of Spectacle. Millions of people and jobs and careers hinge on the random, inevitable tragedies occurring in America every day. The key is to get the story and get it first. Princess Di, Elian, Columbine, Oklahoma City – we know these names because national news sources brought us these stories. Now we’re part of the story. The blood and carnage that comprise a large part of our national news has stopped being pumped in, the live feed has reversed, and it’s sickening all of us.
The job of pillaging grief for news is not an easy one, and any student who expects national media to get our story right is suffering delusions of naivete. There is no way in hell some random from the East Coast, or even L.A., could possibly comprehend the nuances of our loss without spending considerable time in Isla Vista. But they don’t have weeks and weeks; they have 12 hours, often less. They must run around in a town they don’t know, chasing a story they feel nothing about, interviewing the grief-stricken and the media whores alike. In the end, the convoluted story that airs or goes to print is as close as that “professional” could get to the truth.
Numerous national television outlets assaulted the Nexus phone lines asking for quotes, sources and dirt on the story. They seemed at a loss when Nexus staffers explained the basic ethics of journalism: not quoting other journalists and doing your own research. In print and in person, our better-paid colleagues trampled the journalistic ethics we hold dear, and their behavior is a sad comment on our future careers. But more than that, it’s a striking comment on our Spectacle Culture.
Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message.” Television, the Internet and other media don’t show reality; they alter reality and infuse it with their own subtext. The medium is the giant satellite dishes in Perfect Park. The message is “As a nation, we’re only interested when your kids start bleeding.”
The live coverage from Columbine, the Indian bodies in earthquake rubble, the IVTV footage aired over and over again on CNN – these are not viable news items, they’re gory trash. Do all the national-media finger pointing you want, but those fingers are connected to thumbs callused from years of flipping through image after image of tactlessly covered carnage.
Many media whores will use this tragedy to push their own anti-drug/alcohol/driving agendas, and that’s all fine and dandy. I would simply like to live in a world where community grief isn’t a national spectacle for national spectacle’s sake. It cheapens the mourning process.
Be mindful of what you watch on TV and what you consider news. The distraught, offended face weeping on national TV may end up being you.