Sunday, April 03, 2005

Editorial: About Those Death Watches

I'm not scared of dyin'
And I don't really care
If it's peace you find in dyin'
Then let the time be near
-- "And When I Die" words and music by Laura Nyro

C.I. raised the issue of the death watch this morning and what it says about us as a culture Saturday morning, Laura Flanders did a full hour on the need to deal with death in a responsible manner. The topic of death is one we shy away from as a culture.

For all the talk of "death & taxes" being two things no one can avoid, we do avoid death. The latest death watch has turned around Pope John Paul II, a man who lived a long life. So the need for breathless updates really struck us as strange. Noting that he's ill, addressing his legacy, those are solid topics. Addressing health in terms of not just one person is a valid issue as well.

Hyping a death watch and giving constant updates struck us as "Get your front row tickets! Get your front row tickets! Pope slipping away!" The media as carny barker meets Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse, et al.

The Pope was not the first person to die, not even the first this year or month, and the need for bulletins struck us less as honest reporting and more along the lines of something we might see on E! outside an awards event -- "She's coming over, she's wearing Armani, her hair looks marvelous, wait, wait, she's stopped to shake someone's hand . . ."

And we're confused as to how mainstream media that prides itself on objectivism sees this sort of death watch as anything less than sensationalism and how they can justify the coverage they have provided -- coverage long on melodrama, short on information.

What was the intended take away?

Fear of death?

That's really all we're left with. And since we're all going to die, what purpose was severed by the alarmist coverage?

Yes, Pope John Paul II's death will affect many. Yes, many will miss him. But this death watch was a watch -- it started long before he died. And one has to wonder if the fear mongering of an event that's part of the life cycle, something we will all face, has some sort of socially responsible
justification because we aren't seeing it.

Before the press begins the next death watch, we'd offer that legacy talk is always valid. Hyper updates (containing little actual information) around the clock as someone faces death don't seem valid. Using a person's condition to discuss a disease or condition, valid. Turning pre-mourning into a news story strikes as a cult of personality -- the kind of coverage papers engaged in during their "yellow journalism" days.

For all the coverage of Terry Schiavo, the autopsy report got little mention. Maybe that's what happens with a death watch. When the entire story is the death watch, driven by the death watch, the death itself becomes anti-climatic and is greeted with a shrug.

The recent over the top coverage of Terry Schiavo and now of the lead up to Pope John Paul II's death strike us as indulgent and sensationalism and it's hard for us to buy into an argument otherwise when one "death of the century" (Schiavo) becomes a brief mention or buried inside the paper (if noted at all) item when something as concrete as an autopsy report becomes available.

Before the next death watch is hyped, we'd suggest that the media and the public give serious thought as to what's being accomplished by them? The feeding frenzy pushes other topics to the side, topics that actually contain information as opposed to breathless bulletins that often seem to boil down to "nope, not dead yet." Are we enriched as a nation by all being on "the same page" regarding the death watch? Is the purpose of the press to provide easy "water cooler" talk? It apes that talk when it weighs in repeatedly with so little actual information.

C.I. wondered if perhaps we might need to start considering "living euglogies." If recent coverage is any indication of where we are headed press wise, we'd think that time might be coming.
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