Mauling sparks surfeit of coverage

TV/RADIO COLUMN

October 15, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

It's terrible that a tiger mauled longtime Las Vegas showman Roy Horn - of Siegfried & Roy fame - during one of his trademark routines earlier this month.

The morning shows, the cable talk programs, local news - all have succumbed to the allure of the tiger. Friends, publicists, audience members, fellow Nevadans were rounded up for interviews. Experts have argued over whether the tiger intended to hurt Horn, who was put in critical condition by the tiger's on-stage attack. Cable news outlets have offered updates daily, sometimes even hourly.

With all due respect, why should this subject sustain our interest?

The allure of Horn's act could be found largely in its daredevil aspect, much like Evel Knievel's appeal also required the possibility of the occasional but spectacular crash. Usually hard news publications and NPR are getting into the act. NPR interviewed actress Tippi Hedren, of The Birds fame, about animal preserves, one of her passions.

The most impressive intellectual acrobatics are clearly at work on the television programs, which have continued to broadcast shows dedicated to the bloody incident.

Last week, CNN featured a Larry King Live dedicated to an interview with Siegfried Fischbacher, Horn's on-stage partner; on Sunday, the channel rebroadcast a 1999 interview with the two men from, as King called it, "a happier time." Greta Van Susteren of Fox News Channel asked their tiger trainer Monday night to explain various aspects of handling the wild beasts. On Sunday night, here's how Stone Phillips, anchor of Dateline NBC, introduced yet another story on the mauling: "How did it happen and what does this teach us about tigers?"

Should you have missed the program, as I did, I can offer a little-considered summary: Tigers are wild. They are fierce. They have really, really big teeth and powerful claws. It is ever so possible that they don't respond well to sequins.

It in no way diminishes the severe nature of Horn's injury to question the coverage it has spawned.

Receiving far less attention than Horn's injury was the death last week of the cultural critic Neil Postman. Postman's death at 72 drew - as far as could be discerned from a database search - not a single mention on nightly network and cable newscasts.

Postman was an influential voice who was distrustful of the tendency of modern technology to erode society's ability to confront meaningful issues. Attention was reserved for celebrity, glitz and distraction, he felt. Postman reserved a special kind of anger for television news. In one pungent dependent clause in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, he said television news presented "a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or to the future, or to other events."

His greater critique was that the United States, taking for granted the liberty throttled in countries abroad, had turned away from serious discourse. America no longer needs to fear George Orwell's nightmare of a centrally controlled culture, Postman argued. Instead, it is Aldous Huxley's prophesy in which "culture becomes a burlesque."

"America is engaged in the world's most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug," Postman wrote. "To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles?"

Horn's injuries were real, and their occurrence amounts to a genuine incident. Many people sought out his shows for fun. Now, viewers are voraciously consuming medical reports about Horn's condition, and those reports serve as a kind of entertainment, too.

Postman's stance is so unyielding that, at times, it proves difficult to absorb. But his legacy is worth appreciating. He forces these questions to the surface: What is the purpose of the news, anyway? Is it to enlighten or to divert?

Jumping ahead

When it comes to putting criminals in prison, why bother wasting time with all that messiness of selecting a jury and permitting appeals? WMAR-TV's slick new marketing campaign this week seemed to suggest a new, streamlined approach.

In the longer of two versions of its promotional ad this week, the ABC affiliate showed images of Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad as a narrator intoned: "They took the lives of innocent people - now they face a trial that could take their own. ABC2 News takes you behind the scenes with live reports and continuous updates."

Well, no. Jurors get to decide whether defendants are guilty or not guilty of the crimes with which they're charged. It's a quaint little formality, one that allows the U.S. legal system, in theory, to avoid the worst abuses of the Spanish Inquisition.

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