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U.S. Mourns? Don’t Believe It

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The disintegration of a space shuttle is a big story. But it’s not that big. We’re all moved by the death of astronauts, just not that moved. It’s a tragedy for sure. But ...

Does it really warrant the preposterous questions we hear being asked?

Will President Bush have to rethink Iraq? Will he find it easier to bend Congress to his will for the sake of tax cuts? Are critics of the president once again unpatriotic? Has Bush displayed anew his remarkable leadership? Should humankind abandon the quest to explore our universe? Is everything different now? Blah, blah.

Well, perhaps not that last question -- I’m exaggerating. But the others turn out not so preposterous because otherwise respectable and influential people asked them.

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The phenomenon of the big-news story seems only to get bigger with each big story. Or if not bigger, then equally overdone.

“At one time, broadcasters seemed to reflect the newspaper editorial judgment and were the better for it. Now the newspapers and broadcasters reflect cable television news judgment and are the worse for it,” said Van Gordon Sauter, the former president of CBS News whose distinguished career has also included newspapers.

“Seven men and women of unusual accomplishment and merit were lost Saturday. A national undertaking of considerable magnitude was called into question. But the inundation of coverage -- fueled by rank speculation, mind-numbing techno talk and, at times, the most macabre of interests -- seems decidedly overwrought. This is not a national calamity. It is a loss of good people, unexpectedly and inexplicably. It is a national purpose that needs to be reexamined in a serious manner. But the coverage reveals upscale newspapers and broadcasters associating quantity and compulsive urgency with quality and balance. Cable television rules.”

For one thing, some in the media, if not many, went beyond hype and slipped the bounds of truthfulness in the immediate aftermath this time. Barry Glassner, author of “The Culture of Fear” and professor of sociology at USC, noted the broadcast teasers and newspaper headlines announcing “A Nation Mourns.” “Those are probably inaccurate as well as being over the top,” said Glassner, who like countless other Americans went about his business in the last few days saddened but not in mourning.

In my neighborhood last weekend, people washed their cars, mowed their lawns, checked their lottery numbers, stood in line at the movies, watched sports at the local sports bar, took the kids to the park for soccer, honored their dinner reservations, played volleyball at the beach, planned summer vacations. The styling salon down the street was bustling, you could see a blanket of cars at the mall, and it was, a spokeswoman confirmed, “business as usual” at Disneyland.

“The first rule in medicine is to do no harm; the first rule of journalism is to be accurate,” Glassner admonished.

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Columbia’s midair breakup was a shocking event, we were told. To those who were in the debris path, it no doubt was. Perhaps the same for those who take their emotional cues from TV announcers. But the remainder of us? Is it really shocking to learn that something as risky as entering the Earth’s atmosphere from space at more than 12,000 mph results in a fatal accident?

From long experience, we know that humans and fast-moving machines are a dangerous mix. Extrapolating from annual statistics, we can estimate that about 115 people die each day in the U.S. from traffic accidents -- events that are shocking to survivors and families of the victims but not beyond. What is really shocking are the grandiose generalizations, the repetitive hyperbole and the sheer echo-chamber volume and mass that accompany the periodic blow-up of big news accounts these days.

Linda Feldman, a health-care executive for the needy and a self-described “news junkie,” peered in on TV for 10 minutes when she heard about the accident. “At that point I knew about all I had to know. And I still think I know as much as anybody really does. I keep looking for another channel. Too much of it strikes me as drivel ... shallow ... full of purple prose.”

Does it matter if the news media -- the bulletin boards of our society -- periodically lose their heads? Of course it does. How can the fourth estate be a credible guidepost to events if it repeatedly exploits them, or appears to?

For the most part, I’m a knee-jerk defender of my profession. Surely there are plenty of knee-jerk critics who deserve to be met head-on. Except in occurrences like the loss of the Columbia, when a country needs perspective -- and cannot count on us to provide it.

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