Recently I had the misfortune to be in a Days Inn, and, on CNN, which I’d turned on for the sake of companionship, was non-stop coverage of the horrible things Ariel Castro had done to his captives in Ohio. When I turned to online news sources, I read updates on a limo fire that killed a Bay Area newlywed and four of her friends, of whom two were mothers of young children. Meanwhile, the wire services informed me of more common horrors: an entire family killed in a car crash except for the dad, a toddler shot by a 5-year-old, a teen who died in a rolled-up gym mat.
Good thing I stay informed.
Confronted with such terrible stories, most of us, I suspect, have a reaction similar to the one reported by the Onion: Nation Refuses To Read Headline Beyond Words ‘4-Year-Old Girl Forced To.’ (It carried the sub-headline ‘Nope, Can’t Deal With That Today,’ Populace Says.) To be sure, not all of the news I read concerns freakish horrors. Nor are all the freakish horrors I read about unimportant. But I do feel as if I read a lot of news that manages to be 1) pointless, 2) freakish, and 3) horrible. Not that I don’t click on it anyway.
What is news for? When I scrolled over to the website of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), I learned that PEJ’s people have pondered this question at length, putting in “four years of research,” conducting “20 public forums around the country,” reading history, and conducting a “national survey of journalists.” They’ve come up with this: “The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society.”
I’m sure some news professionals out there keep PEJ’s high principles in mind. There are news outlets that do a pretty good job of avoiding shock for its own sake. But, in the real world, even high-minded outlets can’t resist going low when the low-going is good. In 2005, then-BBC chairman Michael Grade vowed an “agenda driven by significance, not sensation”—but when the burning limo story was fresh, the BBC placed it second on its homepage, right under a global crisis being provoked by North Korea. And I clicked on it. I’m a citizen who needs such information to function in a free society.
Why do I read this horrible stuff? I don’t know. It makes me unhappy. There seems to be a voice within that says, “What, too scared to look?” That voice also says, “If you skip this story, you might fail to learn something you really need to know.” But a defining characteristic of the properly pointless horror story is that that it offers no such payoff. There is no lesson or context or enlightenment. We’ll learn that someone got pushed into the pool as a joke, but the pool was empty so he died. Or we’ll learn that someone was standing under a tree when a branch fell onto her head, rendering her paraplegic. Or we’ll learn that somebody’s diary of how horribly she was tortured will be important for the prosecution.
And that’s all we’ll learn. We won’t be told how common such incidents are or what they mean for public policy or how we should live our lives differently. So I read, and then I file it away in a drawer of horrors that I can’t seem to empty.
The tragic limousine fire is the latest addition to that useless drawer. It’s a terrible thing that randomly happened to nice people—and that’s it. There’s talk that all limos will now be required to carry fire extinguishers, so I guess news editors can justify the front-page billing on the grounds of pushing for a completely trivial piece of legislation to guard against a one-in-a-million disaster. In truth, we’re talking bread-and-butter horrible: senseless, freakish death of the sort that pretty much never happens but, when it does, really is awful. Onto the front page it goes.
Sadly, the news business was ever thus—or worse. In his introduction to “Slaughterhouse Five,” Kurt Vonnegut recalled his first assignment for a Chicago newspaper. This was just after World War II, and a newly returned veteran had been crushed in a freak elevator accident. Vonnegut was instructed by his editor to get a statement from the man’s not-yet-informed widow by impersonating a police captain and delivering the news. “She said about what you would expect her to say,” wrote Vonnegut. “There was a baby. And so on.”
Still, the online era has its own special outrages and breaches of privacy, and it has allowed us to put every tragedy on display in one convenient place. The world’s horrible things get turned into horrible stories that are stitched together into a horrible Frankenstein’s monster that is the homepage of KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles. I maintain that I click on all their horrifying crap because editors in the newsroom keep putting it up. But I imagine news editors maintain they put up horrifying crap because idiots like me keep clicking on it. I guess we both have a point.
Then there are the reader comments, left by the many people who want to impose sense on senselessness, generally in horrible ways of their own. Most tend to be of the you-should-know-better-than-to-do-X vein. You should know better than to … leave your baby for five seconds … walk under a tree … drive over 35 in the rain. I suppose it calms people to pretend they’re too smart to suffer anything similar. Just now, I read that a 12-year-old has been arrested for stabbing his 8-year-old sister to death, and already comes the first reader comment: “You do not leave a 12 and 8 year old at home by themselves. NEVER! No excuses mom and dad.” Yeah, leave your kids alone and you’re just inviting—murder by stabbing.
I don’t tend to be of the you-should-know-better school. I’m more of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I school. And that is much less comforting. Actually, it’s not comforting at all. Life is full of horrors. We’ll probably experience one of those horrors firsthand. Certainly, the individual probability of dying in a limo fire or getting crushed by a tree or losing a child to a kidnapper, etc., is low, but the probability of avoiding every one of the horrors that make the papers is also low. Even things that don’t make the papers or seem very horrible can be horrible. The poet Philip Larkin killed a friendly hedgehog while cutting the lawn and got so upset that he immortalized the incident in one of his most famous poems, “The Mower.” Stuff happens. Eventually, it happens to us.
All of this is hard to cope with, and the news doesn’t help. It might help if the stories gave more context—telling us how frequently trees fall and crush people, for instance—but newsrooms aren’t going to change. Neither is the world.
Vonnegut’s approach to life’s capricious cruelty was to invent Tralfmadore, a planet where one can become “unstuck in time,” with no sequential existence, and a “dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.” Larkin, more earth-bound, ended “The Mower” with a simple entreaty: “we should be careful/Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time.”
Since I can’t get to Tralfamadore, even as mental exercise, I prefer Larkin. But I also wish I could avoid the news.
T.A. Frank is editor of Zocalo Public Square, for which he wrote this.