SOLOMON: When It Reigns, It Pours
For several weeks now, a variety of news outlets have commented on the startling importance of emotions. The death of Princess Diana set off an explosion that jolted many reporters into proclaiming that human feelings matter -- a lot. "As a journalist, I've long avoided feelings," news analyst Daniel Schorr confessed to National Public Radio listeners in mid-September. "I used to consider thoughts important and feelings irrelevant. No longer. Gradually, it's been brought home to me that feelings may have more validity than opinions." Kept under wraps or unleashed, feelings have always made a big difference. The problem is that emotional reactions -- whether masked by cerebral essays or stoked by TV news -- don't guarantee us anything. Fervent pleas can make a case for compassion or cruelty. So can reasoned arguments. The key issue is not whether feelings matter. (They do.) Or whether they should. (They always will.) The deeper questions about news media revolve around which feelings matter -- and whose.When the focus is on tragic events, media accounts seem to zigzag between pallid facts and easy sentimentality. Michael Herr, a journalist who covered the Vietnam War, later wrote that the U.S. media "never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about." Obscured by countless news stories, "the suffering was somehow unimpressive."The same media outlets that can go into paroxysms of grief over one celebrity's demise have shown themselves fully capable of ignoring -- or even celebrating -- the deaths of many people. In 1991, when U.S. bombs killed "enemy" soldiers and civilians, the American news media rejoiced. At the end of the slaughter known as the Gulf War, the Pentagon quietly estimated that 200,000 Iraqi people had died as a result of America's firepower. Not a faint breeze of concern blew through U.S. mass media.Dan Rather -- who was to join with other TV news anchors in protracted tribute to Princess Diana a half-dozen years later -- went on CBS at the close of February 1991 to warmly shake the hand of a U.S. general and declare: "Congratulations on a job wonderfully done!" On highbrow NPR, which seemed to stand for "National Pentagon Radio" during the war, the enthusiasm for the killing was similarly palpable.As this fall gets underway, a backlash is coming from big-name pundits who bemoan the media response to Diana's death. The glossy news weeklies have had the best of both worlds, pumping up the media furor over her death and then decrying it. In Newsweek's Sept. 15 issue, George Will denounced the media coverage as "a spectacle both empty and degrading." He lamented that "we have mass media with wondrous capacities for subtracting from understanding by adding to the public's inclination for self-deception and autointoxication." Will continued: "By turning everyone everywhere into bystanders at events, and by eliciting and amplifying their 'feelings,' the media turn the world into an echo chamber and establish for the promptable masses the appropriate 'reaction' to events."With like-minded indignation, Charles Krauthammer filled the last page of the Sept. 22 Time with an attack on "the psychic pleasures of mass frenzy and wallow." He complained: "The public's surrender of its sensibilities and concerns to mass media was never more evident than during the Diana convulsion." But none of these pundits -- Will or Krauthammer or for that matter Daniel Schorr -- could be heard sounding the alarm when media hysteria ignited "patriotic" passion in early 1991. On the contrary, by the time the first missile barrage hit Baghdad, they were among the many journalists pounding the war drums and screaming for blood.Joseph Stalin would have understood. "The death of one man is a tragedy," he reportedly said at Potsdam in 1945. "The death of millions is a statistic."Journalists have a responsibility to disprove Stalin's horrible quip. That would require going beyond comfortable biases and striving to treat all human life as precious. Dylan Thomas, the poetic prince of Wales, advised us to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." In contrast, all too often, journalism does little more than turn the page.