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Matt Taibbi

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 Cover Page

Last Issue: (5)


by Matt Taibbi

There's a phenomenon you'll see take hold of the national media sometimes. You can call it the New Terrible Thing.

Inevitably the New Terrible Thing pops up during a slow news cycle, very often during summer. Winter is a time for important international summits in places like the Hague and Oslo, for icy plane crashes off the coast of Newfoundland, for elections, and for scandals forced into the open by the reality of reporters staying indoors and near their telephones. In summer the whole world takes it a little easier, including the journalism priesthood, and yet, there's still all that airtime to fill...

hack1.jpgWhat's easier: filling your front page and the top of your newscast with a new story every day, or filling it every day with the same story? Every editor in the world knows: the effort-to-copy ratio is at its ideal lowest when there is a running drama to cover. The travel expenses are lower, too. So in the absence of real recurring news--when there are no rudder-failure 737 crashes fortuitously occurring within a few weeks of each other to get the public worked up about--the only option left is to make something up.

hack2.jpgWhat you do is send an army of reporters to some random location to hammer the shit out of some story that's always been there, and then juggle the presentation a little bit to turn that story into something new, into an exploding trend that threatens our very way of life, into the New Terrible Thing.

Last year at this time, the major networks and dailies were sending hordes of reporters to Florida and the Carolinas to cover one of the most ridiculously artificial mass-media events of all time: the so-called "Summer of the Shark." Anyone who'd ever been bitten by a shark, anyone who'd ever seen a shark, anyone who'd ever thought about taking their kids to a beach was transformed instantly into a national celebrity, as reporters sought to cast prehistoric aquatic predators into the gravest current threat to American national security. Not many people remember this now, but one of the most unintentionally funny aspects of the press's reaction to 9/11 was how quickly it dropped the whole "shark thing" as soon as the towers went down.

The whole "Summer of the Shark" phenomenon was set in motion after a single isolated news story with a compelling dramatic narrative--one involving an innocent child and a rescue effort--briefly captured the imagination of the soon-to-be-shark-fearing public. Eight year-old Jessie Abrogast had his arm bitten off by a bull shark in Florida, only to be saved by his uncle, who subdued the shark and eventually retrieved the arm, which was heroically reattached by surgeons.

Within about eight minutes, savvy editors at Time magazine had cooked up a feature story to hang on the coattails of this news, entitled "Summer of the Shark." The Time cover accompanying the feature not only showed the wrong shark (they used a Great White, a species which did not figure in any serious attacks in America last year), but incorrectly argued that shark attacks were "on the rise."

In fact, as The Baltimore Sun and a few other papers quickly pointed out, the number of shark attacks worldwide had actually decreased nearly 20% from 2000 to 2001, and this despite a mathematical expectation that they would increase: with the world population larger and more people swimming, there should have been more attacks, not fewer. Furthermore, any number of other phenomena remained clearly more serious; even Time magazine had to note that faulty Christmas tree lighting claimed more fatalities every year in America than shark attacks.

Nonetheless, the coverage inspired official government reactions, the forming of state commissions, and a wave of fear-mongering news reports that included sidebar features (for consumption even by landlocked readers) like "Ten Tips To Avoid Shark Attacks" and "How to Choose a Safe Vacation Spot."

Fast forward a year. Fueled by a single isolated news story with a compelling dramatic narrative--one involving an innocent child and a rescue effort--the entire national news media dives headfirst into an exhaustive examination of the phenomenon of abductions of children by strangers. Once the Elizabeth Smart case was followed by reports of similar cases in other areas of the country, networks and dailies far and wide concluded, incorrectly, that child abductions were on the rise.

In fact, as The Baltimore Sun (in the person of columnist Gordon Livingston) and a very few other papers reported, the number of child abductions by strangers remained ridiculously small and actually was on the decrease (about 200 to 300 a year, with some 50 resulting in fatalities; the FBI reported decreases in such cases in each of the past two years). Furthermore, this particular type of abduction paled in seriousness next to other safety hazards for children; as The Sun noted, more than 3,400 children die in car accidents each year.

Nonetheless, the coverage inspired official reactions all across the country, with President Bush even announcing a White House summit on the issue on September 24. And there were the same fear-mongering news reports, in some cases with exactly the same shark-era headlines. "Ten Tips For Avoiding Shark Attacks" has been replaced in 2002, in the same slot, by "Ten Ways to Protect Your Child."

Sharks have been eating big animals for millions of years. One ancient species called Carcharodon Megalodon was cheerfully eating innocent warm-blooded creatures all the way back in the Pliocene period. They are not exactly news, and we don't exactly need Time magazine to tell us to stay the fuck away from them.

The same holds true for child kidnappers. In a genetic sample 250 million units strong, there are always going to be and always have been some malfunctions. We don't need Peter Jennings, for Christ's sake, to tell us to keep our kids away from strangers. All of this news and advice-giving is, on its face, quite obviously useless.

Both the shark story and the kidnapper story were clearly driven at least in part by the peculiar economics of television, in particular cable television. When a network like NBC can have affiliations with the Discovery Channel, Court TV, and MSNBC (which in turn has affiliations with Newsweek and it naturally seeks out material that can be used on each of its satellite organizations. Why throw excess footage from the two and a half-minute NBC Nightly News shark piece away, when you can recycle it and make it into a 23-minute mini-documentary on sharks for Discovery?

TV journalists these days frequently cut pieces for two, three, even four networks at once when reporting from this or that location. Though this probably began as an opportunistic cost-cutting procedure, there's no doubt that in recent years conscious efforts have been made to send reporters on stories that have multiple media applications.

The child abductions story had obvious opportunities on this front: it was good for Court TV (broadcast coverage of the Danielle Van Dam trial), the Today Show (interview with Stanley Greenspan, author of "The Secure Child," who gave parents tips on how to prevent kidnappings), Newsweek (just one example of many: "He Will Strike Again," Andrew Murr's story about the Samantha Runnion abduction), Hardball (Aug. 6 talk show segment w/disgraced ex-columnist Mike Barnicle), even Buchanan and Press (Aug. 2 segment).

As was the case with the shark story, the op/ed sectors of the news conglomerates often approached the child abduction topic by leading with the question, "Isn't this bullshit?" And even when the answer was "Yes," they just plowed right on ahead. Here's how Barnicle led off his show:

"But how real is the threat to women and children? Must kids distress every adult? Last year, child abductions were down five percent, and this year the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say there are no more kidnappings than usual."

After a brief visit to this island of sanity, Barnicle two minutes later could be heard playing up the child abduction threat in an interview with ex-detective/jovial media whore Bo Dietl:

"Bo Dietl, let me ask you, now let's take out you know what everyone regards to be really high crime areas. Let's take that out of the question and let me ask you what do you think is more dangerous for children today..."

The print media took the same schizophrenic approach. Take USA Today, for instance. On July 18, it ran a completely sensible story by reporter Martin Kasindorf ("Experts: No abduction 'epidemic' Saturation coverage of recent incidents feeds parents' fears ") which argued against the need for intense coverage. Nonetheless, the paper continued right on playing up the story, even running a number of features of the "How To Avoid" genus (e.g., "Preventing Child Abductions," Jul. 30).

One of the easiest ways to gauge the desperation of this or that news organization to terrorize its readers is to see just exactly where it places, in its "Summer of Child Abductions" story, the (usually) inevitable paragraph reporting the inconvenient fact that kidnappings are actually on the decline. Here are a few examples, broken down in order of relative irresponsibility:


John Higgins, Akron Beacon-Journal. "Abduction Spate Worries Residents" (Aug. 7)

Higgins buried his call-to-reason passage 12 paragraphs down in his piece, and even then he got it wrong: "Recent horror stories around the nation have created the illusion of an abduction epidemic," he wrote, "although child snatching by strangers is still extremely rare, statistics experts say." While this is technically correct, it would have been more accurate to say that cases were decreasing. Then again, that wouldn't have made for such an interesting story. Higgins also used the phrase "A summer of child abductions," recalling last year's "Summer of the Shark." Language like this begs the question: if this is a "summer of child abductions," what was last summer, when there were more abductions?


Christina Almeida, Associated Press, "Parents Fearful Following High-Profile Abductions."(Aug. 9)

The wire-service coverage of the kidnapping phenomenon has consistently reflected the way that self-serving commercial motives color coverage of news stories in this country. Kidnappings are the kind of stories that are made for the wires: they happen in remote places, and they are often the kinds of stories that develop in several different directions in the course of a single day, requiring frequent bulletins. As a result, the wires have consistently played up the legitimacy of the kidnapping coverage while electing to take the most sensational route possible in their approach to it.

Like Higgins, Almeida buried the statistical detail twelve paragraphs into her piece, although unlike Higgins, she got it right ("Law enforcement officials say abductions by a stranger are actually on the decline"). But what was worst about her piece wasn't her sloth to tell the real story; it was the hysterical, horror-movie-trailer tone of the lead-in:

LANCASTER, California -- Izabella Sahakian had her 4-year-old daughter fingerprinted by police this week, just in case. She also has tried to scare her two girls for their own good.

"I tell them that if they are alone, they'll take you and kill you," said Sahakian, a receptionist in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale who also is the mother of an 8-year-old.

A flurry of abductions of girls in Southern California and elsewhere around the country this year has filled parents with fear and prompted them to take precautions.

One should always be suspicious of the wire services when they lead with a personal anecdote. The easiest way to color a statistical reality in the desired direction is to present a dramatic individual story. Out of a nation of parents who mostly are taking this thing in sensibly, the AP here chooses a hysterical weirdo to lead off the story by telling a tale of frightening her daughter with visions of homicidal maniacs.

I saw this kind of thing a lot while I was overseas. A wire reporter would visit a Russian city that had been decimated economically by capitalist shock therapy, with huge sectors of the population unemployed and starving. Out of all of these people, the wires would pick a single resident who had received small amounts of funding for some international pilot project to open a private bakery cooperative. They'd lead in the story with an image of this person rolling up his sleeves to go to work in the morning, end with him counting his proceeds for the day, and conclude: "American-funded reform is working." Meanwhile, two blocks away, residents who haven't been paid for their work at the local factory for eighteen months would be eating each other out of boredom. This is journalism in its most vile form, without a doubt.


Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times. "Shaken Parents Taking More Child Safety Precautions" (Aug. 3)

Despite the panic-button headline, Rivera put her qualifier about as high as it can go in this kind of piece: in the second graph. It reads: "Officials warn against panic, saying that such crimes actually have declined in recent years. Some experts question the usefulness of various anti-kidnapping measures and speculate that they may be scaring children needlessly."


KGTV (San Diego) "Child Abductions: Are There Really More?"(Aug. 13)

Typically it is a small local media outlet that has the wherewithal to get it right. Here, instead of calling themselves responsible by placing the qualifier high up (i.e. The LA Times), KGTV in its segment makes the qualifier itself the story. The station reported right away that the number of cases was actually down, and asked aloud if the coverage was needlessly scaring children and the population at large. It also put forward a damning quote from Court TV reporter Beth Karas:

"I think one reason is once one or two stories get covered, the other newsrooms start following each other."

It's a common cliche of media criticism to say that the press is only interested in the lowest common denominator. This kidnapping stuff is about two miles below the surface of the lowest common denominator. If you were to pick up a phone, call a number at random, and tell the person who answered, "Your children might be abducted today," well, that would land you a nice stint in jail, and for good reason.

Kidnappers prey on children because they're mentally deranged. Reporters do it for a temporary boost in ratings. You tell me which is worse.

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