In the wake of a horrific tragedy, we don’t know what to say so we now say everything. Where our knowledge and speech fails us, we fill that hole with with more and more “information” fumbling around for anything to take hold of as we feel wholly precarious. There is something both sad and human about this reaction. Human because it portrays our innate inclination to regain control after tragedy, our need to stabilize our lives and viewpoints with this tear in the fabric of reality. Sad, well sad, because it betrays our inability to live in ambiguity, and to confess the basic knowledge of our ultimate precariousness in the face of death. Instead we try to find anything to fill the void, and end up making asses of ourselves in every which way. (Most recently, in the race to first report on the capture of a suspect, CNN prematurely reported on a suspect, only to be caught looking like a fool.)
Sooner or later, without anything to actually comment on, news outlet resort to one of two things: either commenting on how we react, or commenting on potential reactions if so and so is revealed. I’m not sure which I find more inane or less helpful. The reaction to other people’s reaction tend to sound sanctimonious (I know, I know so does this post...but I think there is a difference, I hope), and largely sounds like the whimperings of a pained person, unwilling to acknowledge their powerlessness.) The prediction pieces telling us what could happen when x y and z happen are not only largely false, but smack of even worse opportunism than those who use tragedy for political uses that will accomplish nothing. Do these people really think their predictions are correct or matter? How could a prediction at this point matter? There’s a particularly objectionable piece in Salon that sounds intelligent, but upon further inspection is just misguided and kind of lame. David Sirota supposes that if the culprit turns out to be a white person the world will not demand the demonization of a group, but if they are found to be muslim they will, thereby betraying a racist bias. Good point? Even if his point was correct and not specious at it does sound, it remains less clear what the article accomplishes. It takes an uncertainty and places the focus on our potential reaction, trying to create a more controversial angle, which, is as opportunistic as Pamela Geller jumping to attack radical Islam. One misguided predictive reaction piece begets another, which creates controversy, which then in turn requires a response etc. etc. etc. A whole industry is then magically created around our lack of knowledge.
Some of this highlights the growing pains of digital media. Unprecedented access to immediate information, pictures, leads gives rise to a whole slew of opportunities and pitfalls. It offers opportunity for speculation, which in the wake of a tragedy and attack often only fosters a greater sense of confusion and panic. What really is the etiquette of posting graphic pictures that cannot be unseen? (The intentions often seem admirable, but it leads to shoddy analysis and even shoddier sharing. Many people in the immediate aftermath posted a picture of a young girl, the supposed 8 year old victim, only to later find out it was a 8 year-old boy...whoops? Can you imagine finding a picture of your child on the internet as the victim? Then there is the whole strange social rules that dictate twitter and facebook rules about what you must post, can post, and cannot post...)
This opportunism in the wake of tragedy highlights the general opportunistic nature of a for profit news media outlet. We easily see opportunism in the more blatant and explicit cases of using news for a personal agenda from columnists and politicians. Largely, after a tragedy the news world is faced with a tension between our human selves and our working selves. In his essay on reacting to 9/11 in small-town America, David Foster Wallace notices how Dan Rather’s outfit looks meticulously crafted to show him as sweaty, worried, and constantly at edge. There is an artifice to news that tragedy shatters. Tragedy tends to push everyone into a basic human existence, shorn of ideology, we value emotional outpouring. We care about life and death, about heroes, about justice and revenge. Largely it is a visceral experience, and consequently, we feel more heightened to the bullshit out there. We appreciate sincerity and chafe when it is clear that people are trying to manipulate us after a tragedy.
But, truthfully, all news is a sort of artifice, a pose that the outlets use in numerous fashions. The reactions are calculated, even when personal so as to fit in with a brand. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but the absurdity of that stance, one that unnaturally distinguishes between journalist and human being becomes all the more ridiculous during times of tragedies.In contrast, we can notice that the most important words and writing to emerge out of the attack are those from the arena of culture: comedians, talk show hosts, and writers i.e. those jobs where being a human is an essential part of the job are what people want in this time. Patton Oswalt’s facebook post flew around the internet, and the collection of late night hosts reactions to the tragedy were poignant and important. But this rarely deters news outlets from scrounging around for anything to blow up into something. Comedians, hosts, and writers generally keep their finger on the pulse of life and death, and maybe the news world should take a cue from the world of art, maybe we need to learn the art and value of silence, of defeat and patience.