Threshold of pain

Anna Quindlen

March 08, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

BEING a reporter is as much a diagnosis as a job description. It is a strange business, making a living off other people's misfortunes, standing in the rubble with a press card as a nominal shield, writing in a crabbed hand notes no one else can read, riding an adrenalin surge that ends in a product at once flimsy and influential.

"Every day is a fresh beginning," it once said on a mural in the lobby of the New York Times building. "Every morn is the world made new." It is not unlike the confessional -- a clean slate overnight, to be sullied later with newsprint.

Like the canaries sent down mine shafts to detect poison gas, our stories signal how dank is the general atmosphere.

Some argue that we alone produce the poison, which misses the synergy between public and press, between the world as it is and our work as we see it, which is to reflect reality.

Not long ago, a teen-age murderer was news. Today the big story around the world is the alleged killing of a toddler by two 10-year-olds in Liverpool, and stories of teen-agers killing teen-agers have become almost commonplace. Our coverage reflects a shifting threshold of pain.

The World Trade Center explosion was an easy call. Tallest building in New York, terrorist bomb, thousands evacuated, hundreds hurt, several die, dramatic arrests: 'nuff said, page one, banner headline.

But what if the bomb had gone off in a much smaller building? What if it hadn't gone off at all, simply been discovered? What if only one person had been killed, under different circumstances, shot at the office by a disgruntled spouse? The story gets smaller, more ordinary, if death and destruction can ever be so classified. In this business, they can.

It is not a news story in a big city when one woman is raped by one man unless one of them is famous. Rape, which we once rarely spoke about and so pretended was rare, is now assumed to be common. If there is more than one man, however, and they hunt the woman down as she is jogging in Central Park -- and if she is a white investment banker and they black and Latino kids from Harlem -- that is a big story.

Americans have a happy fantasy of a past of exceptional probity. Much of this fantasy is built on silence: gang rapes no one talked about, beatings in the bedroom that were an accepted but unacknowledged part of life, self-abortions with the same needles used to knit baby things.

To read about 19th-century London is to know that we have not cornered the market today on poverty, crime, child abuse, disease or abject misery. Those clucking over the Prince and Princess of Wales should read Antonia Fraser's book about the wives of Henry VIII before they speak of an indulged modern monarchy.

But the taped phone conversations of the King and Anne Boleyn never wound up on "Inside Edition," and the prosperous burghers of Dickens's London averted their eyes from the slums.

Watching men and women stumble from the World Trade Center, their faces black with soot, you were there. Our life experience becomes the bits and pieces of all these other exposed lives, on television, in print. It happened to you -- well, practically.

There is good in that exposure. We cannot say we didn't know about the starving Somali children and the families living hand to mouth not 10 miles from our comfortable suburbs. Sometimes people are moved to good by knowledge. But while ignorance can make you insensitive, familiarity can also numb. Entering the second half-century of an information age, our cumulative knowledge has changed the level of what appalls, what stuns, what shocks. Someone calls a reporter and says, "I have this foster child and he's going to be returned to his biological mother and I'm afraid she'll kill him."

And part of your mind registers that this is a kid at risk and part thinks, oh, the old foster-kid-and-abusive-mother story.

We have the opposite of silence now; we are awash in the revealed world, talking of things that for so long were adjudged unspeakable. Events that are merely tragic must yield space on the page for those that are truly terrible. Gang rapes instead of rapes. Pre-adolescent killers instead of teen-age ones. It is a sliding scale, and sometimes you have to wonder where and when the slide will end.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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