Yesterday, while at lunch, I overheard one breathless woman exclaim, "Did you hear? The Pope just died!" This woman, whom I know vaguely, usually concerns herself with "news" coverage relating to what teacher is sleeping with what student.
So right away, it was obvious we were entering a new feeding frenzy and that the (media) circus had yet again come to town.
Coming back from lunch, I was greeted with "Should we go to Italy?" This from a man who'd spent the morning juggling his evening plans with the woman he lives with and the one he sees on the side. Being neither doctors nor immediate family, I really didn't grasp a purpose of the proposed "road trip" short of providing someone with coverage for not being able to live up to promises he was finding increasingly hard to keep.
All of which brings me to this morning's New York Times which features not one, not two, but three front page stories on Pope John Paul II. Also front-paged are four photos (one of which takes up nearly half the front page). It's flood-the-zone time and we check in on St. Peter's Square, New York, Jerusalem and Poland while articles are authored by Ian Fisher, Jodie Wilgoren and Daniel J. Wakin. I'm sure all three articles are fact based and I won't question the sincerity of the individual authors, but I do question the paper's need to flood the zone on this story.
Pope John Paul II, barring a miracle, will soon pass away. And I'm sure those photographed holding vigils and praying are sincere.
I'm just not sure of the paper's sincerity. Is it just a need to get "ahead of the story," or is something more going on?
Phone calls and e-mails report on the all- "news"- networks' coverage of this expected event and the only phrase that comes to mind is "event TV." That's hardly surprising and a solid reason to give up watching TV "news." Stoking the melodrama and upping the hand wringing has become the hallmark of TV "reporting." (Sunday, ABC's This Week plans to devote a full hour to Pope John Paul II.) But when the Grey Lady, which prides itself on "taste" and "restraint," ups the ante as well, I'm left wondering exactly what's going on?
Is this coverage (including the Times) some cultural reflection of our fear of death? Sociologically what does this say about our reaction to a natural phase of life?
I don't know.
I do know that Democracy Now! managed to address the issues of Pope John Paul's health and his legacy in one story yesterday. Yes, just one. That can be done when you forsake melodrama and go with the facts in a straight foward manner.
Why the paper needs to turn the front page over to a death watch this morning (with two pages -- A6 and A7 -- inside turned over to the continuation of the same three stories, plus six additional photos and a sidebar entitled "Many Days of Tradition, Security and Homage") for an event that has yet to happen is beyond me.
Maybe that's just me. Maybe I just don't respond well to feeding frenzies or media circuses.
And maybe I've failed to grasp how severely we've trashed our notions of privacy as we've raced to embrace the Tabloid Nation feel.
But I'm looking at the Times, reflecting on the reports of TV coverage from phone calls and e-mails, while flipping around the net to see how many "news" web sites are handling this and
what I'm seeing is Terry Schiavo's autopsy competing with the latest death watch (and losing -- apparently Schiavo is now "so yesterday") on what could be assumed to be the "serious" or "hard" news story topics while both lose out to topics such as the ten "most affordable cars" and "lucky days for lovers."
So I'm wondering exactly when did death pageants become the new beauty pageants? And what exactly does that say about us?
Again, barring a miracle (which could happen, probably won't, but it could), Pope John Paul II will soon be deceased. And certainly that will be a story. He's a world leader, an international figure. He's touched many lives and many will be affected by the loss.
But after one long death watch, is it really time to start up another? And do death watches qualify as "hard" news or are we looking at features passing themselves off as "hard" news?
I'm sure it will sell papers, I'm sure it will pull in viewers and "hits" to web sites.
And to the best of my knowledge, there's no patron saint of privacy. So perhaps dignity and restraint are too much to expect from today's media and the notion that anything less than a feeding frenzy doesn't properly honor a person at the end of life has taken hold?
Having raised the issue of "living wills" for over two weeks, perhaps the news media (or "news" media) is now trying to alert us to a modern development -- the need for planning the living eulogy?
I don't know. But what's going on strikes me as something other than a journalistic conceit to pull off a literary Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) while rushing to cover all bases (and then some).
Having upped the ante to the extreme in the lead up, what exactly do they intend to do when the Pope passes?
And exactly when did the Times decide to toss out their own pose of "restraint" and "taste?"
(Probably somewhere around the time they decided to do daily reporting on the Michael Jackson trial -- too many articles on which have made the front page.) The paper's need to institute a death watch, to join in (and front page to the extreme) on the feeding frenzy may be a portent of things to come. If so, the road ahead doesn't look smooth.
Do we get the media we deserve or just the one we settle for? The tabolid-ization of the news and nation ups the ante even higher while an ill and ailing man struggles with his own mortality.
So a "quality of news" question might be one we should ponder before the press starts beating the drums for the next death watch.
As always, I could be wrong.
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