Tragedy Between The Ads

In the wake of the Arizona shootings, the message remains that the business in America is simply still business

Opinion | Stanley Hale | February 2011

I am a retired expat American who continues to consider returning to his family and his roots in the United States. To feel the pulse of events back home, I’ve found it helpful to see the United States through the eyes of the American television journalist, Rachel Maddow. She has a daily one-hour show on what is dominating the news coverage in the States, with a liberal/progressive slant. It’s not just the slant that appeals to me – although it does – as much as Maddow’s consummate journalistic skills. The show is broadcast at 9 p.m. in New York and is available for viewing on the Internet when I arise here in Austria.

The anticipation was great as I clicked on the big "start" arrow on the Rachel Maddow MSNBC website to find out how she would cover the tragedy in Tucson. But before I could see Rachel Maddow video I had to endure a loud and irritating commercial for paper toweling – which stirred more than the usual annoyance. A tragedy of enormous dimensions had befallen America, but before I could even begin to learn more about it, I had to watch a flashy, cheerful advertisement with catchy tunes, for paper toweling. These commercials are familiar, of course, to all Americans (and, increasingly, to Europeans). And I have always experienced the same, all-too-familiar irritation.

But this time it was different. I was grieved and desperate for information, but first I was forced to watch a commercial telling me that this particular brand of paper toweling is far superior to any others.

When it finally came on, Rachel Maddow’s coverage of the event was exemplary. She began with a staggering review of similar shooting rampages in the United States since the Tucson gunman Jared Loughner was born. In her report Maddow chose about 20 killings – among many others – at which at least five people were murdered with various types of guns in the hands of deranged individuals. It was a sobering documentation of gun violence in the U.S., none of which seem to have anything to do with the prevailing political winds. Most important: Events of this kind are not inconceivable or unimaginable. America holds the record "by a mile" for the most guns per capita in the world (90 per hundred citizens).

After ten minutes of this riveting review still another unavoidable commercial followed, lasting at least 30 seconds, transforming a new Internet system into an uplifting "human" experience. The ad might have been appropriate if Rachel Maddow had been reporting on the Dow Jones Index. But she was reporting on the wanton death of a Federal judge, a nine-year-old girl and four others, and many more critically wounded, including a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The rest of the program was interrupted several times, advertising other magically effective household products and the Internet venture again. CNN, by the way, also intersperses its coverage with video commercials for streamlined motorcycles in a world of beautiful sex objects and wide, smooth highways: Owning motorcycles is not just transportation; it is "A Way of Life."

I became increasingly aware of the jarring juxtaposition of unadorned commercialization with reporting on a tragic and gripping event. As if a loved one lying in state were surrounded by slick advertising posters for funeral homes.

Not only are tragedies such as the one in Tucson no longer inconceivable or unimaginable, the reporting on such tragedies becomes a vehicle for selling household cleaning products, fast motorcycles defining a "Way of Life," or advances in telecommunications that are meant to edify our souls.

It is impossible not to recall George W. Bush’s bizarre exhortation after the attacks of 9/11 that the best way to preserve the American "Way of Life" was for Americans "[to go] on about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, …going to movies and to baseball games," as if nothing had happened.  When a national tragedy strikes, you can’t simply conduct business as usual – unless you think that events like this have become so routine that there is no need to adjust the programming schedule.

Do I really want to return to a society where rampage shootings have become almost commonplace, and where the media exploit such events as vehicles for ad sales, and where ammunition is sold at the local supermarket next to the kitchen utensils? In Austria you cannot buy bullets as if they were mousetraps. In talking with a friend today about Tucson, she volunteered that she hadn’t the faintest notion where she could buy bullets, much less a gun (nor could she fathom why she would ever want one). She could, however, at her local super market buy as many alcoholic beverages as she could carry home – ranging from beer to whiskey to a wide array of liqueurs. In America strictest regulations govern the sale of alcoholic beverages at the local supermarket and – and consumption in public…

Quo vadis, America? I’m not sure I want to know.

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