Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On covering the news

I started to watch the news last night and was told at the beginning of the segment that rather than the usual half-hour news I would be seeing a "Special One-Hour" news devoted entirely to the shootings at Virginia Tech.

Fortunately for me, my emphysema kicked up to a degree that my wife took me to the hospital for breathing treatments, so I was spared that. We got home in time to watch one of my favorite programs but it too was replaced, by a special program devoted to… Right, the shootings at Virginia Tech.

It is not that I don’t believe that terrible event should be covered, it’s that I object to the amount of coverage when there are other things happening in the world, and to much of the nature of the coverage.

Dozens of innocent civilians die in Iraq every day, every day, not infrequently four or five times as many as were lost at Virginia Tech, and they get at best one minute or so on our evening news. They might not be mentioned at all, as 57 dead yesterday were not. As pointed out by Dick Pohlman in his blog post today (in part), we seem to lack perspective.

According to news dispatches, here’s what happened early this week in a galaxy far, far away: In Anbar province, the bodies of 17 Iraqi civilians were found buried in a schoolyard; in Baghdad, 25 civilian bodies were discovered; in Falluja, 10 bodies with signs of torture were discovered; in Mosul, two university professors were shot dead; at a site near Kirkuk, three bodies were discovered; at a checkpoint south of Mosul, 13 Iraqi soldiers were killed in an attack.

Even if you omit the soldiers, that’s 57 dead Iraqis – nearly double the body count at Virginia Tech. Naturally, I am not dismissing the horror of what happened on the home front, or demeaning those whose lives were lost in the campus shootings. But since many Americans tend to be a tad self-absorbed about life in their own backyard – a cultural impulse that is currently being reinforced by the 24/7 cable news coverage – it’s easy to forget, or never to realize in the first place, that random killings of the innocent are a daily fact of life in our war of choice.

The faces and bios of the 32 murdered teachers and professors are already being reported and broadcast on the home front, but it should be noted that – in April alone thus far – the number of slain Iraqi citizens and Iraqi security people exceeds 733. And the website that tallied this number warns that “actual totals for Iraqi deaths are higher than the numbers recorded on this site.”

Long after the pain of the Virginia Tech tragedy has subsided, Iraqi innocents will continue to be killed in numbers that dwarf what happened here. I am not suggesting that we instantly cauterize our wounds and snuff out our ceremonial candles. But our myopic focus on the death of American innocents does tend to suggest that we assign more value to those lost lives than to those whom we deem to be mere statistics. We wouldn’t really want to leave that impression, would we?

Pohlman refers to the “24/7 cable news coverage” but neither of the excesses (or what I regard as excesses) to which I referred above was on cable. One was CBS and the other was ABC.

There are wars going on in Iraq and (don’t forget) Afghanistan. There is a constitutional crisis in Washington. There are serious international relations issues afoot. And there was a tragic loss of life at Virginia Tech. We need news about all of these things; not necessarily in that order, but all of them.

The nature of the coverage is my other objection. I regard a breathless interview with some seventeen-year-old who was three blocks away and heard gunshots and is telling us that it was “horrible, just awful” with an expression of grandiosity on her face as very poor stuff for the national news. Those who saw their friends being shot need privacy and a counselor, and those who merely heard unidentifiable bangs and want to see themselves on television have nothing newsworthy to say.

And I really, really do not need to see the same tired film clips endlessly repeated while a pundit with a microphone stuck in his face blathers about the “deeper meaning” of all of this with a sad and solemn expression that he (she) practiced in front of the mirror for an hour before coming on the air.

On a more personal note,

all those deaths in Iraq… In part, small part but part, those are on my hands. I did not contribute to the loss of life in Virginia, but I did to all of the killing in Iraq.

The killing in Virginia was the act of a young man who became mentally and/or emotionally unbalanced. We don’t know the details of his reasons, and may never know, but they were his reasons and his alone.

It would be easy to say that the war in Iraq is Bush’s war as well and even that, like Virginia Tech, it is the act of a single unbalanced mind. But it’s not Bush’s war, as much as we’d like for it to be. This country not only elected George Bush, this country reelected him after he began the war in Iraq.
I didn’t vote for him either time, but my country did.

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