Terror and Bathos

By Douglas, Susan | The Progressive, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Terror and Bathos


Douglas, Susan, The Progressive


TERROR IN AMERICA! This was the teaser for a week-long series intended to increase audience share for Good Morning America. "Is the United States itself a terrorist target?" panted John McLaughlin. Tune in to his next show to find out.

CNN anchors, new members of the Time-Warner "family," hawked Time's latest terrorism issue on the air. With the Centennial Park bombing, hyperbole ran amok--the bomb "blew a hole in the Olympic spirit" and turned the park "from an oasis to a desert"--as CNN sought to lure a portion of the vast Olympics audience away from NBC.

Terrorism may be awful for America, but it's great for the news industry, especially if it's properly hyped.

In the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 disaster and the bombing in Centennial Park, millions of us are stroking our children's hair, greeting our neighbors, and admiring summer sunsets with an intensified sense of the fragility of our lives and those of our loved ones. Of course, we want to know who killed all these people, and why, and we want to see the perpetrators in handcuffs.

So we turn ourselves over to the press to get the very latest. Some of the coverage has been thoughtful and restrained. But when we have a news media saturated with entertainment values, the pressure to turn these disasters into on-the-spot, made-for-TV movies becomes overwhelming. To snare as big an audience as possible, the media shamelessly played on our emotions, which are already pretty ragged, thank you very much.

This same pressure led to an obnoxious intrusion into the bomb investigations. The rescue teams, including many that have worked on other grisly air disasters, report that they have never been so pressured to produce speedy, irrefutable results for the news media. The accusation that the bodies weren't being retrieved quickly enough--exploited for political gain by New York's grandstanding governor, George Pataki--may compromise the salvaging of debris bearing critical forensic evidence.

By now, the violence in the media and the onslaught of one cheap-thrill disaster movie after another have so affected news coverage of real events that it's almost impossible to tell one from another. What's more, our own expectations about solving such crimes have been colored beyond the pale.

How much have movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis or even James Bond stunted our capacity to bear real uncertainty and the pace of real investigations occurring in real time? Can we sympathize with real-life divers whose work is tedious, painstaking, and truly dangerous? And since, on the big screen, we get to learn who the villain is early on, and see him foiled so quickly, we expect that to happen on CNN, too, and we get frustrated when it doesn't.

The insistent finger-pointing on This Week With David Brinkley exemplified the manic, unreasonable rush to find someone, anyone, to blame when a sociopath commits a nearly unpreventable crime. …

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