A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Vulgar Enthusiasm from Various Media

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EAST MONTPELIER – I talk back to the television quite a bit. I get away with it; there’s nobody here but Kiki to comment on either my behavior or my performance. My wife used to point out, sometimes none too gently if I was commenting upon an especially egregious line in one of her beloved soap operas, that the TV couldn’t hear me, and even if it could, probably would write me off as an elderly flake who was losing it.

Particularly upsetting to me over the years has been the almost vulgar enthusiasm with which the various media have reported on spectacular calamities. I wasn’t around for the Titanic disaster, obviously; but the story has been consistently fascinating and still gets attention on various anniversaries. It’s sold a lot of newspapers and theater tickets, and likely will continue to do so for a long time.

I was around for the horribly sudden and fatal big-top fire at a July 6 performance, just 80 years ago in 1944, of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Conn. Allied troops had been ashore in western Europe only a month, and still were fighting fiercely to establish their lines; but the circus fire, with its graphic photos of the blazing tent (waterproofed, can you believe it?, with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline) and the lines of sheeted bodies laid out on the ground, captivated the media and their patrons as little else could have. Yet even then I can recall asking my grandparents when, after some weeks, the story would subside to at least below the fold of the front page.

Most of us, I daresay, remember the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 379 just over 10 years ago. After behaving unpredictably, according to radar and satellite surveillance, it simply vanished. Wreckage washed up later in the western Indian Ocean. The search, eventually suspended officially without any resolution, was the most expensive in history. It also became the most exhaustively reported incident in living history (the Titanic survivors having succumbed to natural causes). Every evening when I heard Wolf Blitzer’s unmistakable voice cutting through the low sizzle of my frying, I shrank with dread at the certain prospect of yet another interview with yet another clueless government “investigator.” Wolf clung to that story as firmly as Pooh to his honey pot. But, as it’s said, it sold newspapers.

Which leads to my current beef with the national media. After weeks of flacking the earlier-than-usual “debate” (a debate, it wasn’t) between President Biden and former president Trump (“The stakes couldn’t be higher!”) we were all shocked (and some of us deeply dismayed) at the tentative, dismal performance of the president. He looked, to use an old Vermont expression, dazed as a stunned ox.

My friend Bea and I looked at each other. Uh-oh! But before we could process what we’d seen and discussed it (we are, after all, adults of some years and able to form judgments) here came the Keystone Kops of the media, filling the air and the commentary pages of the papers with opinions no more sophisticated than ours.

 By the time you read this, the president may have been urged out of his candidacy by members of his own party staring at an electoral defeat less than five months away. That’s of minimal interest to me. He has to balance “When the going gets tough . . .” against “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” It’s his decision, not ours.

 What’s grinding, though, is the media’s apparent lack of interest in the performance of Donald Trump. Here’s most of Bea’s letter of protest to The Boston Globe:

TO THE EDITOR: For every column inch that has been devoted to Biden’s halting debate performance and its possible fallout, I would love to see the same amount of space focused on Donald Trump’s performance – disastrous by any reasonable standard . . .

He failed to answer the interviewers’ questions, was incoherent and jumbled in his speech, spewed misinformation, exaggeration, and lies, took credit for some of Biden’s accomplishments and blamed Biden for some of his own administration’s failures. To anyone paying attention, the debate amply demonstrated Trump’s mental unfitness to be president, but I have yet to see anything like comparable coverage given to his terrible debate performance.  This should change.

Thanks, Professor! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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