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Text "Dead Cheerleaders" for relentless media coverage
by Steve Gordon
“But do you know why we are always more just and more generous with the dead? The reason is simple. With them there is no obligation. They leave us free and we can take our time, fit the testimonial in between a cocktail party and a nice little mistress, in our spare time, in short. If they forced us to anything, it would be to remembering, and we have a short memory. No, it is the recently dead we love among our friends, the painful dead, our emotion, ourselves after all!”
In what could arguably be considered one of the less funny news stories of this remarkably unfunny summer news season, five teenage girls were killed when they lost control of their vehicle and collided head-on with a tractor trailer.
The five young, attractive, Caucasian women had just graduated from high school in Fairport, New York, a relatively affluent suburb of Rochester. They were traveling to a cabin in one of their parents’ SUVs. Also, they were cheerleaders.
The news media smelt blood: five attractive, young, Caucasian women from Anytown, USA killed in a tragic and spectacular accident. Also, they were cheerleaders.
Regional papers and television stations were on it right away, given the incident’s local relevance-first with the standard “tragic accident claims lives” coverage, followed by “a whole town mourns” follow-ups. Rochester’s daily, the Democrat & Chronicle, generated the first of what would eventually spin off into about fourteen news items related to the accident. Associated Press reports then began to spread to national news outlets.
At this point, the event’s newsworthiness should have waned. News items are traditionally chosen if they are deemed relevant and/or out of the ordinary. The accident, as tragic as it was, certainly wasn’t relevant on a national level, nor was it out of the ordinary. In the United States, about 45,000 people die in car crashes every year. If a vehicle crashed because Iranian missiles were raining down on a highway, it would be a relevant story. If one of the victims got up and started chomping on other people’s throats, that would be out of the ordinary.
The majors managed to carry this story for its duration, but it didn’t really exhibit any inherent newsworthiness besides the fact that the victims were attractive, young, Caucasian cheerleaders.
Think of five people you’ve seen in the news who’ve been killed in totally pedestrian ways for pedestrian reasons, or simply disappeared in the past five years. What are their physical characteristics?
The loss of five attractive, young, Caucasian, young, attractive women is without a doubt tragic. However, you have to wonder how many middle-aged, obese African-Americans it would have taken to warrant the same kind of coverage. Fifty? Probably not. More like 200. And it’s sad, because you’ll never fit that many obese people into an SUV.
At around the time the “a whole town mourns” pieces hit the local news stands, the national outlets were already proclaiming that the small community had the entire country’s support. There were attractive, young, Caucasian cheerleaders involved, after all, who all happened to be quite attractive. And quite young. Now, a whole nation could begin to mourn.
The community turned out in droves to publicly display their compassion. Like the opening act of Gianni Schicchi, it was an unctuous public outpouring of sympathy. And not unlike the opera, the sympathy had a deranged source. The five attractive, young, caucasian, attractive women are the deceased Donati, and the mourners—most of whom likely didn’t even know the departed in life-conceal a deeper motive beneath their ostensible tears. Whoever sobs the loudest wins the prize.
Here, the masses that assembled at the funerals sought not only to memorialize the five young, attractive, Caucasian, Caucasian girls, but, on some level, to memorialize themselves as part of a spectacle of sympathy. It was a grandiose display of “the community’s closeness and compassion,” which was apparently not important enough to demonstrate until some hot chicks died.
These are the same people who went all turgid with fury after the WTC fell, and outlets like CNN and ABC News kept them fed by pumping out tear-jerkers at the expense of truly edifying content.
The spread of the internet and the deregulation of media have increased the competition for attention spans, and the lines between information and entertainment have blurred. News programs became flashy and dramatic as sitcoms evolved into reality TV and then into scripted reality. America craves a new hyper-realistic drama that unfolds in real time in order to fulfill a collective desire no longer satiated by the serialized novel or the soap opera.
Even after hundreds and, according to some reports, thousands of people turned out for the heavily-publicized funerals, the newsworthiness of the story hadn’t declined as it should have. It had become, in essence, a TV show that people could fit in and follow at five o’clock every night, and the pilot was a hit.
The public still wanted to wrestle some sense from this capricious event. People wanted a villain: someone to help them subvert their anguish into wrath. Fortunately, there was an angle for this yearning.
Two weeks after the crash, at the tail end of an incessant stream of “so-and-so remembers…” pieces, reporters began to disseminate a new revelation. Apparently the driver of the SUV was driving with a junior driver’s license, which made it, technically, illegal for her to be driving at that time of night or with that many minors in the vehicle. But it would appear that this little detail wasn’t very satisfying. I mean, when you’re looking for someone to blame for the senseless death of a young, attractive, Caucasian, attractive, young woman, it’s kind of a turn-off to have blame the young, attractive, Caucasian, attractive, young woman herself—who was a cheerleader after all.
A few days later, this emotional morass let up. A new report from local police stated that the driver may have been distracted by text messages sent to and from her phone within seconds of the accident. Finally, the story had a villain: not the dipshit texting while driving, but those awful text messages. A human-shaped villain would have been great, but at least it was something, and it had the extra appeal of affirming technophobic over-forties in their instinctive mistrust of the newfangled gadgets their kids are obsessed with. And finally, the story made its excursion, beyond national neo-newsworthiness, into opinion-worthiness.
Two days of “text messaging may have been responsible” pieces followed, and the bloggers and talking heads had penned the season finale. The five attractive, young, Caucasian, Caucasian women were innocent all along, and a lesson was learned: pack your kids some clean underwear, and remind them not to text and drive.
We should congratulate ourselves, America. We worked together and turned a simple, horrible, meaningless car accident into one of the most compelling television events of the year. I wonder what the writers will come up with next.
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