Apparently death isn’t a strong news story if there’s too many at one time. I fear our pop culture has become such a strong force in our nation that it may have more of an impact than it should upon what’s considered real news.
After the sobering news of the passing of Ed McMahon, then Farrah Fawcett, then Michael Jackson, then Billy Mays, then Karl Malden and then Steve McNair, came the news of the death of Robert McNamara. Actually his passing came and went. The news hardly came at all.
Mr. McNamara was one of the strongest and most polarizing figures in American political history, and his decisions and talents affected our lives–and the lives of our fathers and mothers–more than most of us even know. Entire college courses could be taught about just his events. A Modern American History class would have his name and feats in most of the units. Mr. McNamara was the United States Secretary of Defense for President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was the President of the World Bank from 1968 through 1981. He was the father of what we now call policy analysis, which basically happens before most of the news that gets announced to you and I regarding our government’s policies, including those affecting our safety and our finances. He presided during the Cuban missile crisis. He was known as the architect of the Vietnam War. News was reported, speeches were given, songs were written and movies were made about the world events he shaped.
But as he passed this week, the news was largely lost in a culture where celebrity death has become a ratings issue rather than a season of respect. Tabloid fodder seems to be more newsy than a news story.
For example, I received two “Breaking News” alerts yesterday regarding Michael Jackson’s memorial service. With all respect to what he accomplished in life, I wonder whether it was really a dramatically breaking news story that, first, his casket was placed into the service and, second, that there were positive tributes at his service. I would consider that neither “breaking” nor “news,” because that is exactly what I would have expected would happen.
The passing from this live to the next is one of the most sacred, respected and revered events in the story of any one person’s life. How it is treated should be respectful, honorable and, most of all, selfless. My heroes of network journalism–Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, John Chancellor moving on to Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings–brought an evenness to stories like these. A fairness. A respect. You’d have never seen them leverage someone’s passing for ratings or capturing market share by extending the story longer than when there was a story.
I suppose these are fair matters for discussion: Does Farrah’s one season on “Charlie’s Angels” warrant a wider media berth than Ed McMahon’s long years on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?” Does a rock star deserve more coverage than a world leader? Does the pitch man for retail products deserve more media attention than a deceased football player, or vice versa? But, in all truth, I don’t think media leaders make decisions that way. There’s a professional and respectful restraint that used to exist that is now missing. And it’s a shame, because its effects are far reaching, setting a model for how our culture sees itself and makes decisions in everyday life.
The value of a human life is an awesome, wonderful–and equal–thing to our Creator, who (in my belief) loves everyone the same.
Journalism isn’t what it used to be; that much is obvious. But there comes a time when someone should step up and say–even if only to those close to us–that the real story is what we’ll do differently in our lives going forward before our run is done to memorialize the passing of those we respect with decisions in life that reflect our faith and impact the future.
And we can do that whether the one who’s passed is a media figure, a political leader, or just someone close to us who isn’t famous…but whose life mattered very much.
My respects go out to the families and friends of Mr. McMahon, Ms. Fawcett, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Mays, Mr. Malden, Mr. McNair, Mr. McNamara and, to all of those who’ve lost someone less than famous recently whose lives likely mattered just as much to those who knew them and loved them.