::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Essay: Media Meltdown

A letter writer to Sunday’s Boston Globe made an interesting observation: “If idiocy were really a crime in this whole incident, the local media would be locked up.”

Last week, Boston became paralyzed with fear and panic after authorities discovered several magnetic lighted signs attached to bridges, overpasses, and near transportation hubs. The immediate assumption was that the devices were possibly bombs and that the city was about to be attacked by terrorists.

As a result, parts of the subway system and major highways were closed down. State and local police scoured the city and located eight other devices. Meanwhile, the city mobilized extra police, bomb-sniffing dogs, and emergency responders. Traffic in the city ground to a stand still.

In the end, however, the devices were simply video art displays and part of a marketing campaign for a Cartoon Network show called “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” In other words, millions of dollars wasted and fear and panic propagated for what will go down in history as the most successful guerrilla marketing tactic in history. Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of the Cartoon Network, ended up paying $2 million to Boston and surrounding communities to make up for the furor.

It’s difficult to blame the Boston Police and the Massachusetts State Police for this. In our post-9/11 world when an officer discovers an electronic device with wires and batteries magnetically attached to a bridge overpass – well, better safe than sorry.

But after the initial reaction and once the devices were found to be nothing more than next-generation Lite Brites – shouldn’t common sense have settled in?

It probably would have, except for one thing. The media.

The media continues to play the role of instigator in these types of stories. Responsible reporting and journalistic ethics are thrown out the window in the hysterical fear of not being the first to report on the story. And don’t let the media apologists convince you otherwise. The media is more concerned about being first than being right.

As a former newspaper journalist, I remember the strict instructions in our newsroom when it came to bomb scares. You didn’t cover them. Why? Because bomb scares unnecessarily promoted fear and encouraged copycats. Besides, as one old-time editor once barked at me: “Fictional bombs ain’t news.”

Yet despite this once cardinal rule, the local media – newspapers, local TV and the cable networks -- took this “bomb scare” story and ran with it. They ran hard with irresponsible speculations and breathless updates on every nuanced detail.

One has to wonder how CNN, part of the Turner Broadcasting, was unable to figure out that the devices were part of its own parent company’s marketing efforts until more than eight hours after it first reported on the possible “terror attacks” in Boston (doesn’t the Turner Marketing Department watch CNN?)

But the most amusing aspect of this story may be the press conference of “artists” Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, the twenty-somethings who were the low level marketing freelancers who installed the signs. Both young men spent the night in jail and then were quizzed by a hostile media the next day.

If there’s one thing the media hates – it's subjects that don’t play their roles in a story. The media demands it. Heroes must be humble, grieving mothers must be tearful, politicians must be on message, and wrong-doers must be contrite. Break this script and the media gets damn irritated.

So when Berdovsky and Stevens refused to apologize and turned the press conference into a circus (they would only answer questions about hair), the media wanted their heads on a platter. “A thumb in the eye to the public at large,” one Boston newspaper columnist described it. No, it wasn’t – it was a thumb in the eye to the media.

But we’ve already gotten the preachy op-eds and columns about their behavior – because God forbid the media look in the mirror. They don’t even blame themselves for broadcasting and reporting on the press conference – which was a joke. Instead, they turned the joke into another story.

So the media is now engaged in its next favorite pastime – after sensationalism, finger pointing.

We’re being inundated with stories about who gets the blame: the police, the Boston mayor, Turner Broadcasting, the Cartoon Network, guerrilla marketing, the “new realities” of post 9/11 America, underground culture, the internet, bloggers, and even the apathy of 15 to 25 year olds.

One frantic Boston Globe columnist called the new governor, Deval Patrick, gutless for not sending state police to Atlanta to arrest the head of marketing at Turner Broadcasting.

But the real blame lies with the media. Instead of a bomb scare that turned into a dud and authorities acting responsibly during that time – the media turned it into an event – fearful that the bombs would explode and they’d miss the whole thing. If they had acted responsibly and held the story until the facts revealed themselves, we wouldn’t have had the panic and the fear.

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