A wise book, "Feeding Frenzy" (Free Press, 1991) catalogs how the media since about 1974 have been "going after wounded politicians like sharks in a feeding frenzy. The wounds may have been self-inflicted, and the politician may richly deserve his or her fate, but the journalists now take center stage in the process."
Though the author, Larry Sabato, a political scientist, was dealing with the political process, the same observation can be made about how the media pile on other "wounded" people in public life. Never was there a better case study than in the current hysteria over the figure skater Tonya Harding.Utah's Olympian skater, Holly Cook-Tanner, one of a cast of thousands the media have called upon to comment, labeled the Harding case a soap opera. She was right.
As this is written Harding hasn't been charged with anything, but the media have universally been characterizing her as a tough, "blue collar," almost gun-moll, type. While the grand jury was still out, Harding was being tried in such judicial forums as "Prime-Time Live" and "Larry King Live."
- THE PRESUMPTION OF innocence has been suspended to the point where the media are discussing how she has to clear her name, not how the law has to find her guilty, not whether she has a right to represent her country in the Olympics but whether, given the cloud she is under, she dare do so.
(The term "media" is sometimes used too broadly, as if they were a monolith instead of a vast variety of news outlets with different personalities and agendas. But in this case using the collective term is justifiable. Even the most respected mainline media - such as the great newspapers of record and "60 Minutes" - have jumped into the fray with lengthy portraits of the tough, unpolished kid from the wrong side of the tracks who would go to any lengths to succeed.)
The story of course is intriguing, with all of its "human interest" ingredients of greed and envy in our sports culture. But in a world of 5 billion people and 190 nations, does it deserve front-page treatment in the papers day after day and the covers in the news magazines week after week, regardless of whether there is any verifiable discovery at the moment to peg a story on?
- ONE CLEAR EARMARK of "feeding frenzy" is the pouncing on rumor and speculation.
Dick Button, the great Olympic gold medalist, told USA Today that "rumors are sometimes worse than actual fact, and they are flying rampant. The tragedy of the event is that two wonderful women athletes, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, are now having to worry about this kind of thing instead of enjoying the fruits of their labor."
Even contradictory reports have been carried with no attempt at evaluation. Before the arrest of the accused "hit man," CNN reported that one newspaper report said that the alleged attacker had implicated Tonya, another that he had not.
Another indicator is the lust for which media try to keep the story alive even when there are no developments. Often they do this by quoting second- and even third-hand sources they haven't even attempted to check out.
Days before charges were brought against Harding's ex-husband, USA Today quoted the Detroit News report that an arrest was requested. The Associated Press copiously quoted NBC News and the Portland Oregonian, in Harding's hometown. In another story USA Today quoted ABC News, which cited unidentified police officials. In an AP story an anonymous source told the Boston Globe that the hit man told authorities that Harding was in on the plot. Reports for many days were filled with "believed to be," "allegedly," "appears to be," "police believe" and "reports swirled."
- A CRITICAL POINT in all stories was the purported existence of an audio tape of a conversation in which Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, her ex-husband and another man purportedly planned the attack. The New York Times wrote that "whether the authorities have the tape, whether it still exists or whether it ever existed are among the many questions lawyers in the case have declined to answer." On "PrimeTime Live" last week Eckhardt allowed that he had burned the tape.
The Harding story has assumed such momentum that it's unlikely that, however it unravels, the press will cool it. What a pity. As Saboto observes, "journalists must feed less at frenzies and more at the table of fairness and civility."