If a hostage situation happens in Alabama, does it make a sound?

February 5, 2013
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My friend Marcus Gilmer has a thought-provoking piece over at the Sun-Times about the recent hostage situation in an Alabama bunker and the puzzling lack of wall-to-wall coverage:

It’s a tense, dramatic story, one that seems like it would captivate a nation just as it was captivated by stories like a girl who fell down a well. Had it happened in a large city – New York, Dallas, even, God forbid, Chicago – the coverage would be constant, a 24-hour surveillance with every media outlet descending on the city. A story that touches on all the socio-political hot points in the wake of the Newtown tragedy – gun control, safety of school children, mental health – would surely draw nation-wide, if not world-wide, attention.

But it didn’t.

The above story really happened and, for the entire week the crisis lasted, few Americans were aware of it at all.

Marcus’s point isn’t that there wasn’t any coverage of the story, just that the level of coverage is surprisingly low considering how many national flashpoints the story contained.

His contention – borne out of a firsthand knowledge of Alabama that comes from living there and then later seeing how outsiders cover the state – is that too many dismissed the story as one about “some crazy redneck” and didn’t recognize the underlying issues.

For my part, I saw near-daily coverage of the story in the beginning then it seemed to drop off for a couple days before ramping back up again. Even before reading Marcus’s piece – and you should read the whole thing because it’s smart – I thought the lack of blanket coverage might have to do with two notions:

* Putting the full-court press on a story like this with Nancy Grace calling for the kidnapper’s head and asking why authorities weren’t storming the bunker with guns blazing is the last thing you want to do when a guy is holding a kid hostage. The more pressure he feels, the more hopeless his situation is, the more likely the standoff will end in violence. Rampant media coverage is just the kind of environment to encourage that.

* We may finally be figuring out that creating anti-folk heroes out of mass shooters is encouraging more mass shooters as this video from 2009 describes:

Now, Marcus does acknowledge all this here:

One of the main reason little was said on-air about the crisis, particularly by local outlets, was at the request of local authorities because the kidnapper – Jimmy Lee Dykes – had a television in his bunker and could monitor coverage.

Admittedly, it seems a stretch to say the collective national media has suddenly grown a conscience after Newtown – especially after it made so many mistakes in its early coverage. But as others have said, Newtown changed the conversation – about gun control, perhaps about mental illness and maybe about media coverage. Still, with a life in the balance it may have been a bridge too far, too soon for the 24-hour punditry.

Whether it was a geographical bias or a new awareness of how¬† to cover violence, Marcus’s final points are irrefutable:

We as a nation have to be willing to face all of theses stories – Hadiya and Midland, an Oklahoma student’s suicide and gang problems in New Orleans – before we can hope for any meaningful change. Ignoring any aspect of this only hinders our ability to come to terms with what’s happening.

[SNIP]

For now, though, two men are dead – one an innocent man who tried to protect his charges and the other a kidnapper who met his end holed up in a bunker. All we can do is be thankful that the young boy, identified only as “Ethan,” has survived to celebrate his 6th birthday tomorrow, and continue to push the issue, to push for resolution, and to push our nation to have what will be a painful conversation but one that must be had. And we all have to accept responsibility in making that happen.

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