Jan 20, 2009

Bad News

You know what I hate? (those of you who know me are saying, “Yes, Jo, we know, but tell us anyway”). Well, I WILL tell you anyway, because recent events have brought it to the forefront once again.

I hate news people who are only too happy to gleefully report some gruesome and/or tragic story, over and over, reshuffling and regurgitating it, to the exclusion of all else till every last detail is finally wrung out and they can eagerly wait for the next tragedy. And if it doesn’t look bad enough at the beginning, they happily tell us to stay tuned, it could always get worse.

They warn, “We don’t have a final body count yet, but we’ll let you know when we do” or “We don’t know the extent of the injuries yet” or “We don’t have a damage estimate yet but tune in at 11:00 for a follow-up.”

Ok, I know that good news is boring. Isn’t that the origin of the favorite old saw, “no news is good news”? No one cares who lived, who didn’t get hit by a bus and which kids made it to school safely. It’s all about who died or disappeared, who was maimed and how it happened, in gruesome detail hopefully all caught on tape for the 6:00 news…

So when we had a critical situation last week, as usual the news people eagerly leaped to the story, reporting that a plane crashed on the Hudson River and God-knows-how-many people are probably dead. But much to the chagrin of the zealous media, the plane was handled so expertly that tragedy was averted; in fact not one life was lost; not one building burned to the ground; and the pilot was the last to leave the downed plane after the efficient and orderly rescue efforts to evacuate the passengers by both public and private servants. (“Aw, geez,” they seem to say, “I hate when that happens…”)

It’s so fun (for me at least) to see news people compelled by the facts (against their will and their training, I am sure) constrained to report good stuff. I laugh right out loud when they are forced by circumstances beyond their control to recognize the heroes, to praise the Good Samaritans, and report on the orderly procession of survivors to safety. They twist their faces into a gritty (and almost apologetic) smile as they reluctantly acknowledge the ever present public servants: police, fire and medical workers who, professionally and efficiently go about doing their jobs to get people, infrastructure and processes back to the business of everyday living. I know it must just gall them when nothing bad resulted… no one died, and the public could all bear witness to seeing the best in people (darn it).

In fact, even when the story is really, really bad (like 9-11), when the news people are reveling in their element; when there are plenty of casualties to report and plenty of gory and lurid details to recount over and over (when there is no fresh news) there are still the seemingly grudging reports from the media of the ever-present actions of millions of everyday people responding with generosity, compassion and understanding both on the scene helping with their hands, and from far away, helping with their wallets.

Fortunately, (or unfortunately) bad stuff brings out the best in us. We can’t help it. It’s hard wired in our bones; and it’s how we have made it as far as we have. Let’s face it, the only people living in this world today, are the progeny of generations upon generations of people who helped each other survive again and again. The ones who struck out on their own with nary a thought for the "family of man", usually got gobbled up by the saber tooth tigers, stomped on by wooly mammoths or fell off cliffs in the dark (with no one to pull them back) never to be seen again, (and whose passing was only noted by, probably even then, the ever cheery predecessors of today’s news media in gruesome and graphic detail).

We see it at every critical event. Once that first guy drags himself out of the ashes, smoke and muck, and gets a firm foothold, he looks around and then reaches back to grab the hand of that next struggling guy and pulls him to safety. The two of them then begin working to clear the way for the next few souls who come stumbling and gasping along, holding each other up. Inevitably, passers-by stop, first to gawk and then to help, and before you know it, the kids are back in school, streets are cleared of debris and we are driving home from work wondering what to fix for dinner and what happened today in the news (“Probably all bad”, we say. Whoever said "We are never at our best till things are at their worst" had it right on the money. (It probably wasn't a news guy...)

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