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We must keep tragedies in perspective
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When tragic deaths occur under intense media scrutiny, there is often a reflexive grasp at greater meaning. But our pent-up desire to address serious, overarching problems, sometimes leads to a flood of misdirected emotion and protest.
Two recent incidents underscore the problem. The first involved the Kansas City football player Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed his girlfriend before taking his own life. The second concerned Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who committed suicide just days after she was victimized by a prank in which radio D.J.’s pretended to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles in a call to a London hospital where Saldanha worked.
Belcher’s murder-suicide led to outcry for tighter gun controls; Saldanha’s death prompted rage over vicious pranking by radio and TV programs. Both issues are serious – the former far more than the latter – and in need of attention. However, these particular stories are false examples of true problems, and attempts to make them into something they are not only distracts from the larger issues.
The Kansas City incident prompted immediate discussion about guns and how they should be controlled, as almost always happens in high-profile cases where a firearm is involved. This time, the debate grew fierce after NBC’s Bob Costas delivered a commentary during a national football telecast in which he condemned the “gun culture” in America. He quoted at length from a commentary by Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports, including the assertion that, “If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and (girlfriend) Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”
Costas has a point about the gun culture, especially among NFL players. But he and Whitlock are off base in maintaining that the two deaths would not necessarily have occurred if Belcher didn’t own a gun. The following day, Costas called for better screening of gun buyers, and limitations on sale of automatic weapons – both entirely reasonable – but, again, not relevant in this case. Belcher used a handgun, and no amount of background checking would have stopped him from buying it.
The unintended consequence of gun commentaries by Costas and others was that they actually provided ammunition, if you will, for the gun lobby. By seeming to challenge the Second Amendment, although he never mentioned it, Costas made it easy for gun advocates to, if you will again, fire back.
The nurse’s death in London prompted an even greater storm of protest, aimed at two radio hosts in Australia who conducted the telephone prank. Their action was described in Tweets and blogs in vile terms along with demands that they be fired. “There’s blood on your hands,” declared one anonymous Tweet that ABC News decided was worth repeating worldwide.
Telephone pranks, whether by middle-level radio D.J.’s or giggle-happy teens, are passé. The radio station in Sydney where the gag originated even took the prudent step of reviewing the audio file with attorneys before it was broadcast.
What distraught observers of this sad event should really be focused on are the truly vulgar, sometimes dangerous, pranks conducted around the world and transmitted virally on YouTube. A recent clip from Brazil, for example, in which passengers in an elevator are scared out of their wits by the appearance of a ghostly figure who enters through a secret passage, is the type of irresponsible “gag” that is truly deserving of public outcry.
But to use the London tragedy as the basis for protesting media pranks is to miss the point and deflects attention from the real problem of shock-video.
In his NBC commentary, Bob Costas actually had it right when he said we seem to need tragedies to gain perspective. He might have added that we must also keep tragedies in perspective, and not misappropriate them for the convenience of trying to make unrelated arguments.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at