The Media's Inexcusable Frenzy

As those old-time anthropologists never tired of repeating, ritual creates social solidarity. The standard talk after each new American tragedy is of the community "uniting" and "coming together." But around what, exactly?
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I found the whole Boston Marathon bombing frenzy appalling.

It's astonishing just how fast it turned into a media circus and the latest national spectacle. But it was also altogether predictable given that we now seem to lurch from one made-for-TV tragedy to another. Each drama -- Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, and, the archetype of them all, 9/11 -- follows more or less the same script. Something violent happens; innocent people die. Invading media armies descend for a couple of days of what the behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls "herding"; a breathless sense of tragedy, trauma and momentousness prevails; the American president arrives to offer consoling words; the locals make brave declarations about healing, loss and moving forward. If terrorism is involved, big American flags go up everywhere... and then the news anchors, the SWAT teams and the TV trucks pack up to leave until their next grand mobilization. It's become the sort of scripted, ritualized sequence of events that the anthropologist Victor Turner long ago termed a "social drama."

As those old-time anthropologists never tired of repeating, ritual creates social solidarity. The standard talk after each new American tragedy is of the community "uniting" and "coming together." But around what, exactly? Those that lost relatives or suffered injury in Boston deserve our deepest human sympathy. It sometimes feels, however, like there's a dimension of narcissism at work in the way that people in the general area of the latest attack, those not directly affected in any way, seem to relish in becoming the protagonists of their own drama of bloodshed, suffering and red-white-and-blue resolve. There's no lack of us ready to tell our story of the day for the cameras, or later to friends and family.

We're outraged when we're attacked. But the moral indignation, not to mention the media coverage, has always been scarce when we're inflicting suffering on others. That history, of course, stretches from slavery to dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese cities and now drone attacks that kill Pakistani kids. Last week's report about the torture of prisoners during the Bush administration received a boson's particle of the Boston coverage. The likes of the marathon attack allow us to claim a position of innocence and victimization. It's a way of slipping out of the more common, if not always fair, view of Americans as modern history's bullies.

We grieve for those in Boston. Surely, however, we should also mourn the killing of so many young black men in gang violence in that same city; the homeless drug addicts who have frozen to death on Boston streets; and the hundreds, probably thousands, of people killed on April 15 in political strife in countries like Afghanistan, the Congo and Mali. But these problems have no solutions as simple as hunting down the Tsarnaev brothers with tanks and night-scopes in a medieval show of force.

The almost ecstatic paroxysm of grief, fear, outrage and 24/7 "new developments" around the latest high-profile violent attack is a poor substitute for the real action and engagement that it would take to begin to address the world's more endemic problems. Our Congress can't even pass basic gun control legislation.

As for the media, it's the great enabler. Anderson Cooper and the rest have become trauma's midwife. They give us the images of our own suffering in which we seem to take such pained pleasure. Even the would-be serious media joins in the circus (and shame on you, NPR, for joining the herd with your "extended" All Things Considered "special coverage" from Boston). The CNNs and Fox News' of the world generate must-watch, "special" coverage with plenty of "latest updates" to keep viewers tuned in and those all-determining advertising dollars flowing. The result is an unappealing feedback loop of extravagant media sensationalism and our own almost voyeuristic interest in it. What we lose is any more serious understanding of society and the challenges we face.

The satellite trucks will be leaving Boston soon.

They'll be somewhere else before too long.

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