A Heartbreaking National Tragedy
February 4, 2003 6:09 AM   Subscribe

A Heartbreaking National Tragedy
It happened one morning, on your drive to work, or while channel surfing on your 400-channel cable-satellite or whatever-mind-numbing-media outlet you feed the desires lurking in your mental cage. The Heartbreaking National Tragedy.
So sudden. So devastating. No one saw it coming. And who could believe it happened? "Honey, did you hear? It's devastating!" Even the Dr. Pill show is interrupted. Little Cousin (the incestuous child of Big Brother) comes on with pancake-makeup face and shellacked hair carefully arranged to hide his receding hairline....
posted by Mwongozi (44 comments total)
perfect. thank you. everytime a Heartbreaking National Tragedy happens, someone says "it's so sad" and i've thought "why?"
posted by andrewzipp at 6:16 AM on February 4, 2003

Here's a nice bit:
" HNT Expert: Yes. As you can see, everything is fine. The Americans are living... now...as you can see... they are dead. It's really devastating to see, no matter how many times you watch it...the Heartbreaking National Tragedy...really devastating..."

Good angry satire.
posted by Outlawyr at 6:20 AM on February 4, 2003

Where's my ticket to hell? I read that and laughed while nodding my head.

BUt then I've never really followed why the death of someone who will never have any effect on you causes such public anguish.

I suppose the answer is 'the media' since not that long ago you wouldn't have heard about said HNT until a fortnight later, but that's a bit of a bullshit answer...
posted by twine42 at 6:20 AM on February 4, 2003

Yeah. Boy. I'm really glad I had the enlightened folk at Kuro5hin to point out what a farce this all is, because I'd almost been lured into the trap of feeling something for the Columbia crew. Close call.
posted by transona5 at 6:23 AM on February 4, 2003

Even the Dr. Pill show is interrupted.

Superdiva, stop wasting your time posting to K5! Mad magazine will pay big bucks for your boffo socko wit!
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:25 AM on February 4, 2003

You'd think apathetic mysanthropes would eventually run out of cynical things to say, or at least just not bother.
posted by techgnollogic at 6:29 AM on February 4, 2003

Too often it seems like we're on the hunt to track down who's responsible for the HNT (or even smaller events), in some sort of control-freak measure, completely ignoring the fact that accidents happen, and it's no one's fault. We can't control our lives, and any notions to the contrary are merely a figment of one's imagination. Life is short, precious, fragile, and as many times as we escape death out of luck, modern science, or medicine, death always wins. Seems like Americans are especially bad at accepting it.

The shuttle tragedy is that--a tragedy--but it seems fairly ironic to me that Americans can pour their hearts out for an HNT, and the 364 other days of the year not give two shits about the homeless guy on the corner.
posted by gramcracker at 6:29 AM on February 4, 2003

its really nothing to do with the columbia crew transona5, and you know it. it's a spot on condemnation of the insipid, mewling talking head 'national enquirerism' that we are repeatedly subject to in place of useful information with any sort of world perspective. by the way, at the time of our most recent HNT, zimbabwe experienced a HNT what was 571% more heartbreaking and tragic than the shuttle disaster. how was the coverage in your area? [train wreck, 40 dead] great post, Mwongozi!
posted by quonsar at 6:30 AM on February 4, 2003

Many people have explained better than I could about how the Columbia wasn't a worse tragedy than the Zimbabwe train disaster, but its consequences for space exploration, as well as it being a local story, made it justifiably covered more in the US. It's not worth going into. The point is, this tragedy resonated with a lot of people. When that happens, some of us deal with it by going overboard monitoring the media, whether it's CNN's incremental updates or C-SPAN's Israeli news feeds.

This writer has no examples, no arguments, to explain how the media exploited this or any other tragedy. She has nothing more to say than: the media covered this a lot. Anyone who watched the coverage and felt anything is one of the mindless brainwashed drones that make up corporate Amerikkka. Tune in, turn on, drop out. Blah.
posted by transona5 at 6:39 AM on February 4, 2003

First Read-through Reaction: "Nicely summarized retelling of a familiar formula"
Second Read-through Reaction: "Waaay too broad strokes to make an impact on anyone besides the already-cynical. Why bother."
posted by chandy72 at 6:48 AM on February 4, 2003

Don't forget that the shuttle tragedy could impact the American economy which makes it so much more serious. Don't even get me started about the abuse of the word hero.
posted by monkeyman at 6:51 AM on February 4, 2003

quonsar: I guess the same thing can be said of the Zimbabwian media. How much coverage did they flood their media with about their local HNT?

How hard is it to grasp that American media covers American HNT with more gusto than they do tragedies in other countries? People want to know what is happening in their area/state/country. It doesn't make it any better/worse than what happens elsewhere. It just means that people can grasp/relate to the local more than the global.

As a Canadian, we get the spill-over of the American media coverage of the HNT. One third of the television stations that we pick up are American, so obviously we're going to end up seeing a lot more coverage about the HNT than most other nations. But it's no longer considered front page news anymore. We're more concerned about other matters, and just put it in the middle of the newspaper until some shocking revelation (which was missing from the HNT article) might make it front page news again.
posted by grum@work at 6:53 AM on February 4, 2003

Yeah. I didn't actually like any of that. I know that some people did but,... I didn't.
posted by ed\26h at 7:08 AM on February 4, 2003

great link, mwongozi - thanks. i think the piece bashes the media formula, not the sentiment, the fact that it deserves media coverage, or the fact that we all grieve. i think, though, that we all get very sick of hearing news reporters sticking a microphone in a grieving relative's face and asking "how does this make you feel?". how in the hell do they think losing a loved one makes anyone feel? another great question, "how can we avoid this?". ummm, like maybe if we all had crystal balls?
posted by harja at 7:12 AM on February 4, 2003

"How hard is it to grasp that American media covers American HNT with more gusto than they do tragedies in other countries?"

I think it's more than just a difference in coverage. The shuttle is being treated like Christ on a cross with this huge outpouring of emotion. It's kinda weird. That train thingy, well, this is the first I'm hearing about it.
posted by Outlawyr at 7:15 AM on February 4, 2003

I can't stand the tragedy porn approach on TV -- the family that lost relatives to 9/11 and Columbia appears to be permanently encamped on NBC -- but media overkill doesn't negate the significance of the Columbia disaster. There aren't many times when a multi-billion dollar public program that involves the cooperation of several world governments explodes over several million people, raining debris over hundreds of miles.

It's certainly of a different caliber than the Laci Peterson missing person's case that was filling the U.S. news channels for days before Saturday morning.

If you believe, as I do, that the colonization of other planets is probably humankind's only hope for long-term survival, the future of the manned spaceflight program is huge news.

At least as big as the Matrix sequels and Joe Millionaire.
posted by rcade at 7:19 AM on February 4, 2003

Good stuff, good link. Why do news stations (CNN seems to be the worst) have to come up with god-awful trite sayings that usually rhyme to describe the news they're about to give? Like the Scuttled Shuttle or Shuttle Rubuttal or Attack Iraq! etc. Awful stuff. The newscasters faux attempts at showing respect for the victims is what superdiva is writing about and it resonates with me, anyway.
posted by vito90 at 7:25 AM on February 4, 2003

We had a Heartbreaking Local Tragedy a few years back, here in St. Louis - one of the grand old churches on the South Side was on fire. The firemen got the fire under control before the masonry started crumbling, but then the news helicopters showed up, fanned the embers, and *poof* the fire was ragin' again.

Of course, the local "I'm here, live at the scene" talking heads were down there, "interviewing" old people that had gone to the church all their lives. One old lady couldn't even talk. The beauty of truly Live Feeds, though, is that the local kid who pulled the camera away and told the newsperson "why don't you fucking leave these peple to their grief" was on live television. Heh.
posted by notsnot at 7:35 AM on February 4, 2003

The satire forgot to mention the follow-up press conference which segues from the HNT to reasons why we need to attack Iraq, now!
posted by iamck at 7:51 AM on February 4, 2003

"We're going live to the scene of The Tragedy where The Officials Who Stand Around and Give Bullshit Sound Bites to Newsfeeds are there to give us some more information."

I want to be one of those officials. I give good bite.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:11 AM on February 4, 2003

Here's an interesting piece by an editorial page editor who's a little taken aback by the cynicism this disaster seems to have brought out in people who write letters to his newspaper.
posted by transona5 at 8:17 AM on February 4, 2003

Who would have ever thought that ironic detachment could be used for humorous effect?
posted by Skot at 8:19 AM on February 4, 2003

Apathetic misanthrope indeed. Do we need our shuttle disasters and federal building bombings to be newscast with some kind of minimalist irony? I'm duly impressed with this utter detachment from the things going on around us. Go find something to care about, superdiva...
posted by scarabic at 8:42 AM on February 4, 2003

Who would have ever thought that ironic detachment could be used for humorous effect?

Hey, wait a minute--I didn't get that memo!
posted by y2karl at 9:01 AM on February 4, 2003

scarabic: It's my understanding that superdiva cares about these things and hates to see them exploited on every possible level by the media for money.
posted by ODiV at 9:07 AM on February 4, 2003

Bah. This same sentiment is expressed much more gracefully, imo, and without the over-the-top sophomoric aint-I-cool cynicism, by this editorial cartoon, IMO.
posted by jammer at 9:53 AM on February 4, 2003

And IMO I used one too many IMOs there. IYKWIM.
posted by jammer at 9:57 AM on February 4, 2003

The point is, this tragedy resonated with a lot of people.

But why is that? The issue here is perspective. There are obvious implications for the space program here, but the bulk of the oversentimental coverage hasn't been about that. People aren't placing wreaths at makeshift memorials because they're worried about the space program - they're mourning. Our hometown newspaper yesterday had an article about how to get children through this period of mourning.

I'm wondering how the hell we are in mourning for people whose names, prior to the shuttle explosion, we didn't even know.

Sad? Yes, it's sad. But how is the death of seven people succumbing to an occupational hazard any sadder than a young child killed in an auto wreck, a young mother succumbing to cancer, or any number of tragedies that are happening in your town at this very moment?

Answer: it isn't. But TV keeps implying that it is. The coverage, I believe, is fueling the overwrought emotions. Because the demise of these individuals was so dramatic, they become symbols. We hail them as heroes. What makes them heroes - that they died? Are all other shuttle astronauts equally as heroic?

It's false, this public outpouring of emotion is utterly misplaced. Stop feeling so intensely about people you don't know and start worrying about those you do.
posted by kgasmart at 10:23 AM on February 4, 2003

And IMO I used one too many IMOs there. IYKWIM
You may have, but you're right. The article was far too self indulgent. Cack.
posted by ed\26h at 10:25 AM on February 4, 2003

What makes them heroes - that they died?


Are all other shuttle astronauts equally as heroic?

posted by ed\26h at 10:28 AM on February 4, 2003

Did anyone notice that CNN's little "A nation mourns" 5-second graphic and mournful music thingey shared the exact chord progression and pacing with Madonna's Oh Father? That upset me on a lot of different levels.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:30 AM on February 4, 2003

Jammer, that cartoon is very funny. Good link.
posted by furiousthought at 10:36 AM on February 4, 2003

I get it, I agree with it, but I still think it's poorly written. gramcracker, quonsar, scarabic, and kgasmart's comments were all much more interesting to read.
posted by Zulujines at 10:40 AM on February 4, 2003

quonsar: I guess the same thing can be said of the Zimbabwian media. How much coverage did they flood their media with about their local HNT?
but grum, the zimbabwe media is not the topic of the post and basically the zimbabwe media isn't any concern of mine. why would i care, and how is it germane to the present discussion what the extent of zimbabwe coverage of thier own disaster was?
posted by quonsar at 10:47 AM on February 4, 2003

This all reminds me of Don Delillo's Airborne Toxic Event in his sort of prescient book White Noise, only Delillo was more spot-on and more satirical, and perhaps more talented.

"It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low, packed with chlorides, benzenes, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content. But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event, like the vivid scene in the switching yard or the people trudging across the snowy overpass with children, food, belongings, a tragic army of the dispossessed. Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious."


"Whatever caused the odor, I sensed that it made people feel betrayed. An ancient, spacious drama was being compromised by something unnatural, some small and nasty intrusion. [...] It was as though we'd been forced to recognize the existence of a second kind of death. One was real, the other synthetic."
posted by jessamyn at 11:17 AM on February 4, 2003

I picked up on the HNT op-ed piece a Kuro5hin early this morning, and admit to laughing my ass off. I was one of those apparently few Americans who not only knew that the shuttle was aloft, but was aware of details about the science experiments on board and even knew about Payload Specialist Ramon.. what can I say? I am a space junkie. So I am certainly not laughing about the shuttle disaster, but her cynicism regarding the news media hits me close to home.

When the Challenger exploded when I was 10 years old, I distinctly recall news cameras zooming in on the expressions of horror cracking the faces of the astronauts' family members... and staying there to brutally record their grief. I recall days of looped explosion footage, and somber coverage of O-ring committees. It was the first time I was consciously aware of the news media's exploitation of the Heartbreaking National Tragedy. Since then it has only gotten worse.. our nation's hunger for news of the Heartbreaking National Tragedy causes us to let the news media get away with farce disguised as news.. from Connie Chung asking the same question a dozen times of two frustrated astronauts to the interrupt driven mini-sound bytes of Today and Good Morning America.
posted by xyzzy at 12:30 PM on February 4, 2003

kgasmart: yes. It kind of reminds me of the 'Princess Diana's dead!' mania. The sudden, gratuitous outpouring of pseudo-grief for someone totally extraneous to the lives of everyone taking part.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:37 PM on February 4, 2003

It's not worth going into

a nice way of saying you don't know
posted by Satapher at 2:47 PM on February 4, 2003

Are all other shuttle astronauts equally as heroic?

But then I think "heroic" (alongside "brave") is another term that has been devalued by media use. Are shuttle astronauts heroic in the sense of doing something that is extraordinary by everyday standards and requires extreme dedication to achieve? Most definitely yes. Are they heroic in the sense of performing despite being very scared? No. See the STS-111 Astronaut Q & A ("are you scared during a launch and while in orbit?") and many other astronaut interviews that ask the same question.
posted by raygirvan at 3:37 PM on February 4, 2003

ODiV: you're probably correct, it's hard to tell in absence of anything genuine from the author. Even so, I'd push the idea one step further and ask: how should a great big hairy disaster be reported? Is gravity in reporting style merely exploitative?

You can't ignore the timing of this little K5 piece. Clearly the author thinks his/her thought is approptiate to things like the Shuttle disaster. The criticism of media hype is valid, but right now this is a point that hardly needs making. A petty quarrel for a dire time.
posted by scarabic at 10:14 PM on February 4, 2003

Christ. Everyone's a friggin' hero.

Everyone's a friggin' terrorist.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:29 PM on February 4, 2003

I guess it's good satire when it draws the kind of reaction this article has. Someone even went to the trouble to email my web host and complain today. FWIW, while it was clearly inspired by the Columbia accident, I don't see the article as being any kind of a slight to the Columbia crew at all, or to the very real sadness that many people feel about it. It's the news media's lascivious representation of grief in the service of money that I think the article is objecting to. The fetishization of Tragedy and the nearly pornographic repetition of the Event until it has no real meaning, and just becomes another TV show.
posted by rusty at 12:56 AM on February 5, 2003

Christ. Everyone's a friggin' hero.

Well, that's it, isn't it? It started after 9-11, when the cops and firefighters who lost their lives there were dubbed heroes, and designation with which I personally agree. To lose your life while trying to save others' lives is indeed heroic.

But I became uneasy once we began to say that all cops and all firefighters at all times are heroes. The people whose lives and property are protected by cops and firefighters undoubtedly owe them a debt of gratitude. But can one automatically be a hero based solely on his vocational choice?

Now, the astronauts. And, coming up, the soldiers in Iraq.

What all this does is water down the validity of the term "hero" and cheapens the accomplishments of those who really are heroes, by the classical definition. If Audie Murphy and the traffic cop in Podunksville, U.S.A., are both "heroes," it makes Murphy a lot less special. And there needs to be some sort of differentiation between the two.

Maybe "heroes" and "heroes plus."
posted by kgasmart at 9:00 AM on February 5, 2003

They left out the part where, about 15 minutes after the HNT, tasteless jokes appear in your email.

As usual, the Republicans are trying to score political points out of this HNT. They're blaming the Columbia tragedy on the left wing!
posted by Wet Spot at 5:34 PM on February 5, 2003

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