Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
I write freelance for a lot of different people, and I spend about half my career hours as a journalist. And I'm a little miffed about something.
I think I might be the only journalist in America who hasn't been assigned a story that has something to do with Dale Earnhardt. I'm going to rectify that right now. In truth, I could give a shit about auto racing and/or any of its drivers. I have discovered an important rule of journalism, however, and his tragic death makes a great example:
The importance of a news story is directly proportional to the frequency of its reporting, and the frequency of its reporting has nothing to do with the importance of the event itself.
Unless you live under a rock and only come out once every two months to go to the punk record store for a couple of CDs, you know who Earnhardt was. Even were that the case, you'd probably figure it out soon enough, because by now Jello Biafra(1) has probably staged a comeback with a new band called the Dead Earnharts(2).
A high percentage of you probably had never heard of him before his recent death; Earnhart was not a particularly important man. He didn't make the stock market go up and down, didn't find a cure for redneck ignorance; and didn't invent a car that could run on the hot air emitted by bloated politicians. He just drove really, really fast in a circle for a long time, usually faster than the other drivers. That's all.
Aside from his family and other loved ones, his death should have had little affect on anyone. As much as they'd like to think otherwise, his fans will still go to the races, and will no doubt find some other fast driver to worship. His existence had little effect on human culture, and his death should have passed quietly.
Notice I say, "should." Had he won the race, gone home, and died from a heart attack, his death would probably have caused hardly a ripple. However, his death is BIG NEWS because it happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people--and cameras.
I think perhaps the basest human desire is that which makes us slow down as we pass accidents on the highway and crane our necks to see if there's any blood on the road. Auto racing caters to that desire; many fans will admit that the accidents are the best part of the race.(3) Therefore, a gruesome racing accident is about the only thing that makes better TV news copy than naked women.(4)
The day after the race, TV news showed that accident an average of once every five minutes during the shows' teasers and once every five seconds during the shows themselves. At this writing, one month later, they still manage to show it at least once every couple of nights.
In the meantime, our so-called president has managed to offend a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Korean by blowing off a chance to negotiate with North Korea, the Palm Beach Post has determined that Gore won the election, and we seem headed back to a cold war. However, these are less important stories, because while the events will affect each of us, they're less interesting to watch than a flaming car with a man inside flying through the air.
But here's where the story does become important: the event itself means almost nothing, but the media coverage has created a situation that threatens our freedom. Because of the intensive repetition of the gruesome scene, journalists are about to have a part of our first amendment rights yanked from us. Ultimately the blame for that, ironically, will fall on the head of a newspaper.
See, a newspaper could run a photo of the accident once or twice. However, the paper can't run it on every page, which would equate to the televised coverage, and it would look really stupid for the paper to run the same photo every day for weeks, like television news did the video clip. Therefore, in order to keep the story alive in some way, a Florida newspaper has asked to see the autopsy photos.
Earnhardt's widow doesn't want that. I don't blame her.(5) The paper says they don't want to publish them; they just want someone to look at them, to see if there should have been an "investigation." She probably didn't believe that--most people who have had much contact with reporters don't trust them. My best guess is that the paper wants to keep the story alive by writing descriptions of autopsy photos, which will appeal to the sordid interests of their readers almost as much as that two-second footage of the car crash.
The controversy over the photos has catalyzed the writing of a bill that, by the time you read this, will have gone before the Florida legislature, and perhaps become a law. [Editor's Note: The law has been signed and put into effect.] The bill will restrict access to certain kinds of information--like autopsy photos. I have mixed feelings about that.
On the one hand, I can't approve of any law that restricts the freedom of the press. On the other hand, I doubt that the newspaper wants the photos for any reason other than greed; people will buy the papers that contain the stories that come about, advertisers will spend more, and the story will go out over the AP wire and make them even more money. As adamantly pro-first-amendment as I am, I'd have a hard time supporting the rights of an over-funded, over-powerful capitalistic newspaper to exploit a tragedy like this for no other reason than to further stuff its corporate coffers.
Perhaps in simpler times, when a community newspaper was truly a part of its community, its editors would have had the grace to forego the exploitation of autopsy photos in the interests of good taste and consideration of the family. However, many of today's large and powerful papers are just part of a giant corporate conglomerate; the hometown newspaper may soon be replaced by information-distributors that resemble home-improvement mega-stores and chain supermarkets.
I suppose, then, that as this happens, we can expect regulations like this when we permit information to become a commodity to be bought and sold like so many pork bellies.
1 Strangely, my spellchecker doesn't recognize "Biafra" as a word, but does recognize "biasfree," "barf" and "beaver," which should tell you something about Microsoft.
2 A reference to an '80s hardcore punk band, Dead Kennedys. Another equally witty parallel would refer to the '80s California band, MDC, or Millions of Dead Cops. Millions of Dead Earnharts would work very well, I think. I thought of it first, and claim 10% of your royalties if you steal it from me.
3 I happen to know this, because I live not far from Daytona, and have met some fans. I even went to the races once, and about the only excitement during the hours and hours of watching cars go in a circle is the occasional accident and the millisecond during which someone crosses the finish line first. Otherwise, it has a lot in common with sitting in the front yard drinking beer and watching the grass grow.
4 Bike Week contributed another over-reported news story recently, this one about scantily-clad women wrestling in a bed of coleslaw.
5 I don't trust them, either. I've been on the other end of a reporter's legal pad often enough to know this: there's a device they use, where they act "buddy-buddy" to you, then use what you give them to smear you. I imagine that's probably happened to someone in the Earnhardt family at least once, and she's wise to be cautious.
Email your feedback on this article to email@example.com.
Previous Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Columns
Other articles by Morris Sullivan on this website: