Media transforming death into dollars

NEW YORK, (U-WIRE) — Two weeks ago, a Concorde flight departing from Charles de Gaulle Airport crashed into a Gonesse hotel, tragically killing 114 people.
When Americans discovered the news on their television sets, radio stations and informative Web sites across the nation, they responded with fear, panic, grief and sorrow.
But the word to describe the emotions of my co-workers at a national cable television station was jubilant.
The same polarity of emotional reaction took place the week before as well. A teenager, described only by his black hair with “dyed purple tips,” had opened gunfire in the cafeteria of a high school conducting summer-school classes. Thankfully no one was hurt because the shots had been fired toward the ceiling, but my co-worker still thought the event was “fantastic.” That afternoon we had already booked Gavin de Becker, a leading expert in predicting violent behavior and the author of “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signs that Protect Us From Violence.” The show’s senior producer was overjoyed that audiences would believe that we had managed to spontaneously book De Becker during the two-hour window between the shooting and our live taping.
When I brought my shock at his reaction to his attention, another producer brushed the incident aside, explaining, “Oh, you’ll get used to that around here. We know that it’s disgusting and inexcusable, but it’s our job. We have to think like that.”
Children take up arms against their classmates, and the first thing that crosses a television producer’s mind is ratings. A supersonic jet spews huge flames from its tail as it dives into Hotelissimo, and the news industry breathes a thankful prayer that the dreadful summer news drought is finally over.
In contrast, presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush was probably cursing the jet crash — not because of its tragic depth but because it had stolen his media-driven spotlight. Although news leaks and leads had been circulating since the Saturday beforehand, that Tuesday was also the day that Bush formally announced former Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney as his Republican running mate. Brian Williams, the anchor for MSNBC’s coverage of the Concorde crash, practically apologized to Bush when the network returned to its coverage of the crash rather than air the remainder of Bush’s formal announcement.
Motivated by fear-driven curiosity, the audiences watching the news at home, listening on the radio and reading the news stories posted on the Web attentively collected bits and pieces of information about the crash. Motivated by financial pressure, the news networks worked tirelessly to stretch a tragic story with a heart-wrenching ending into a four-hour broadcast.
But the news of the day and the updated details of the tragedy had to be delivered to the American public in some manner. And that manner was a form of business — media business. It was the job of the producers, anchors, personalities and commentators to report the Concorde crash, as it was their duty to educate the American public about Cheney’s Congressional voting record, the environmental efforts being made by Ford Motor Industries and the failed Camp David talks.
Whereas outsiders to the industry interpret news as a mere presentation of information, insiders depend on tragedies, celebrations and surprises for basic levels of subsistence. Insiders are not at the liberty to view events with an emotional, sympathetic eye.
The assumed purpose of an internship is to experiment working within a professional field. From the vantage point of a relatively naive 20-year-old, I only know what I dreaded to be part of my future profession, namely boredom, fatigue and monotony. I have long wanted to pursue a career in journalism, in part because the industry was constantly changing and moving forward yet at the same time able to balance itself by looking to the past.
After my experience this summer, I better understand what I dread about the working world: Even if the work is glamorously unrepetitive, it is still unappealingly impersonal. Media work converts one’s success into dollar signs and another’s loss into high ratings — it takes the drama and glitz away from the changes and events that should spark our sentiments and emotions. The media play an important, integral role in our society, no doubt. But the toll that they take on those who micromanage the industry might be too much for me to bear.

Jordana R. Lewis’s column originally appeared in the Aug. 4 Harvard University paper, the Harvard Crimson.