When Charlie Sheen received wide, feature-length media coverage of his erratic, self-indulgent behavior while soldiers dying in Afghanistan received little to no mention by the networks, someone disgusted by the media's priorities created a facebook status update that quickly went viral:
Charlie Sheen is all over the news because he's a celebrity drug addict," it said, "while Andrew Wilfahrt 31, Brian Tabada 21, Rudolph Hizon 22, Chauncy Mays 25, are soldiers who gave their lives this week with no media mention. Please honor them by posting this as your status for a little while.
That viral status update then prompted a blog post from CNN's Wayne Dresh, who wrote that it was "a sobering reminder of the news media’s failings of covering the Afghanistan war."
But author Zoe Winters wants to know, "What is the net benefit of knowing?...I think it’s GOOD if the news media spends more time on Charlie Sheen than soldiers who lost their lives."
[T]he media is a sick and twisted mind disease. Once they get their hooks in a story, all they want is the “angle”. They will get in these people’s faces and make their mourning period even more awful because they can’t give people any peace or privacy to grieve. People who have lost loved ones don’t necessarily want you butting your nose into it and saying “Oh, how sad.”
Except...in the piece by Dresh, Jeff Wilfahrt - the father of Andrew Wilfahrt, one of the fallen soldiers mentioned in the facebook status update - is quoted as saying, “Get this on the front headlines, and make people aware of what’s going on."
Yes, that's just one parent of many who have had a son or daughter spend a year or more (or less, if they were killed or injured) in Afghanistan or Iraq over the last decade, and we can't expect him to speak for all parents (or friends or loved ones) of service members. But we can assume from the viral facebook status that he's not alone in finding the sacrifices made by troops and their families worthy of more news coverage than that which is afforded to actors behaving badly.
Winters suggests, in the above quote from her blog entry, that news coverage would invade the privacy of mourning families, but having been assigned the task of writing newspaper features about people who have died, whether it was of old age or as the result of a car accident - the killed occupant a well-liked 16-year-old high school kid, I learned people enjoy talking about the people they love. They cherish the opportunity to tell others what it was about them that made them special and what they hope others will remember.
We can also assume media coverage of fallen troops would continue to be as tactful and noninvasive as it's always been - or, as it was when such stories were considered "interesting" because the wars in the Middle East were still "fresh" and "new."
While Winters' point does have some merit, it doesn't necessarily compel me to side with her. She writes that "In a sick, and twisted way, people are entertained by all of this [bad news]" and professes concern for the privacy of the soldiers' families, but one could also argue that the media focus on a man clearly destroying himself physically and suffering mentally - and the people's obsession with (and Winters' interest in) it - is "sick." And what about Sheen's family's privacy? Their emotions? Their distress over what's happening to their son/brother/father?
But Winters offers another reason for her preference for Hollywood gossip over what others might consider more pertinent news:
It’s depressing. It’s anxiety provoking. And it just makes people feel fucking helpless. There is nothing I can do about a tsunami. (Yes, money can be sent, but I’m talking about the actual tragedy itself and the lives lost and the things destroyed that can never be returned to the way they were.) I’m not magic. There is nothing I can do about an earthquake or war or any of it. It is what it is. And yet, the news goes on and on with it and people sit and watch and say “oh, how sad”. And they make their statements about it and get all overwrought and emotional even though they don’t know anybody involved.
My response to this, which I wrote as a comment to her blog post, is that it’s empathy for others that makes people look at war [for example] as something more than a political talking point, as something that has actual impact on actual people. One of the benefits of being aware of what's going on outside of our own neighborhoods is, maybe, the reminder we're given that we're all part of a larger community of PEOPLE.
Claiming to have no "power" over a war or a tsunami and using that as an excuse for shutting out the bad news is a cop-out. I'll add here that it's lazy. People make a difference all the time. That one person can’t do EVERYTHING doesn’t mean one person can’t do SOMETHING. An incredible man I interviewed several years ago, Deacon Arthur Miller, said it’s the height of arrogance to lament the fact that your solitary voice won't be heard (and to do nothing because of it). Why, he argues, should you believe your voice will be heard in the sea of others? All you have to know is that you can do your small part, and that in doing that small part, you’re doing the best you can do. And that’s something pretty incredible.
There's nothing one person can do about a war, no. But the more connected the nation is to the people involved, the more interested they'll be in the war, the more educated they'll become, and the more likely they'll be to have a collective voice in how we proceed.
Is one soldier’s death more tragic than any other? Is one human death more tragic than any other? Hell, is one kitten death more tragic than any other? Death is tragic, because it’s separation and a reminder that all this… ends. And it’s fucking sick to me when we start ranking the importance of deaths like we have the right to weigh and value human life… for the lives of people we don’t even know in the first fucking place.
Agreed - ranking deaths is "sick." But troop deaths are larger than their personal stories - they're the players in our country's decade of involvement in the Middle East. I imagine Winters and others with the same position would be more aware of that if there were adequate news coverage. Winters implies this, herself:
So, no, I don’t watch the news. The only reason I even knew about Charlie Sheen was because people kept tweeting #charliesheen and #tigerblood and I was curious and googled. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known about that either. I’m vaguely aware some soldiers died and lots of people in Japan died. I emailed a writing friend of mine who lives in Japan to make sure she was okay, otherwise I felt no need to know anything about any of it.
Clearly, if more people were tweeting #fallensoldier and #MiddleEast, if it were more "popular" because the media gave it as much attention as they give Sheen and his tiger blood, others might get equally curious and, like Winters, google. Otherwise, they - like Winters - probably don't know much about it. They, like her, are probably only vaguely aware that "some soldiers died" and that "lots of people in Japan died."
Winters concludes with the following:
And if that offends you, sorry. It’s more honest, IMO than all the people who pretend to be personally moved by an event happening thousands of miles away from them when they aren’t.
I, for one, am not offended by anything but 1. the suggestion that I should be, because it makes me think offense - and an argument - are hoped for and are, in fact, the purpose of the post, and 2. the claim that Winters is "more honest" than others who "pretend" to be personally moved by things that don't affect them personally. This phenomenon - known as "empathy" - is the subject of a 2009 Wall Street Journal article, "Tracing the Origins of Human Empathy," according to which,
Like tuning forks, we reflexively respond to others' moods. We can weep at the plight of people we have never met or, spellbound by fiction, become caught up in the lives of people who never existed. Indeed, we may be hard-wired for empathy, University of Chicago researchers who studied children's neural responses to others reported last year. "It starts on day one, when a baby cries because it hears another baby cry," says Dr. de Waal.
DeWall adds that
empathy, sympathy and compassion are traits shared by every species with a rudimentary capacity for self-awareness.
While there are certainly those who are attracted to the "morbid' or "train-wreck" news stories simply for the sake of the drama, I would argue there is a far more important reason we watch the news, and that the news is failing in its responsibility to keep us informed of the events that impact us - or even should impact us - on a greater level.
And this is where, in closing, I add my single complaint about Dresh's blog entry: while I appreciate his effort to introduce us to the dead troops whose names appeared in the viral facebook status update, I wish he would have spent more time criticizing and questioning the practices of the media. I wish he would have issued a challenge to every television news outlet to improve.
Causes Kristen Tsetsi Supports
Planned Parenthood, SPCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America