An old journalistic axiom holds, “If it bleeds, it leads.” This means that stories of violence—of murder and arson, tornadoes and hurricanes, floods and carnage—always get primary attention in newspapers and on radio and television news. They still do, but coming up fast on the outside, especially on television news, are stories of deep personal sadness. So regular a feature of nightly television news has the spectacle of heartbroken people become that a new axiom is needed: “If it weeps, it keeps.”
I have in mind those stories that cause people, in response to the questioning of journalists, to break down in tears. I saw one the other night about a couple who were in the advanced stages of adopting a Russian child when Vladimir Putin decided to outlaw American adoption of Russian orphans. Pictures were shown of the couple playing with the child during visits to Russia. The story ended with the journalist asking the husband how he felt about this setback. He answered that Putin’s edict would cause great distress for many orphans, tears streaming down his face as his voice broke.
“What was on your mind when this disaster occurred?” “Did you ever think you would be unemployed this long?” “How do you feel about your horrendous luck?” These seem to be among the most frequently asked questions in television journalism. Inspired perhaps by the soppy success of Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey, television news shows, local and national, now go directly not for the jugular but for the tear ducts.
“How do you feel, knowing that the bank has foreclosed on your mortgage on the house that your grandfather built when he arrived here from Poland 75 years ago?”
“What were your first thoughts when you saw the tornado was headed straight for your home with your 3-year-old twin sons in it?”
“When you learned that your 14-year-old daughter, an honor student, was killed in the crossfire between gangs, what went through your mind?”
Two questions of my own: Why do the people on whom all this sadness has been visited agree to talk to jerks with microphones in their hands and cameramen in tow? Second, Where do television stations find journalists vulgar enough to ask such questions?
Journalists, to be sure, have never been known for their sensitivity. In A Child of the Century, his autobiography, Ben Hecht recounts that his first job in Chicago journalism was to get photographs of recently deceased people to run with their obituaries. One family, valuing its privacy, refused to speak to him. So Hecht climbed up to the roof of their house, clogged their chimney, and when the house filled with smoke, causing the family to evacuate it, ran in to steal a portrait of the deceased from its place over the mantle.
In the 1980s, the New York Times Magazine ran a weekly column about the psychological problems of contemporary men. Contributors to the column told of complicated relationships with their fathers, or with their children, or of experiences in which they had to abandon the standard responses of traditional masculinity. Among editors at the magazine, the column was known as “Wimps.”
I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that, at the planning sessions of current television news shows, the question arises daily of what stories are lined up in which people break into tears. Easy to imagine a scene where the local news anchor asks the managing editor what weepies he has scheduled for tonight’s six o’clock news. “We’ve a choice of three,” the editor tells him. “We’ve got a woman whose uninsured house burned down, the widow of a recently shot cop, and a kid whose puppy was run over by a fire engine.” The anchorman pauses, then says: “Let’s go with the cop’s widow and end with the kid and his dead puppy. Animal stories are always good to close on.”
Why have these insensitive, indelicate-because-altogether- too-personal questions asked of people who have undergone loss become a staple of television news? Is having the victims of tragedy break down on television supposed to make the rest of us feel good by comparison? (There but for the grace of God . . . ) Are we supposed to feel bucked up for not having our own houses blown away or flooded out, or for having managed our personal finances more carefully than those now out of work and in danger of losing their homes through foreclosure, or for not having lost people we love to acts of arbitrary violence?
Far from feeling lucky, or elated, or in any way superior, the effect on me of watching people brought to tears on television is much simpler. It confirms me in my belief in the low-grade cynicism and irretrievably bad taste of television journalism.