Heart-rending stories

The MSM loves human interest stories about profoundly damaged military personnel returning from Iraq; or stories about the families left behind when a member of the armed forces was killed in Iraq. (Today’s NY Times story is but one example of many.) I fully appreciate that pathos and bathos sell, and that someone’s tragedy is much more interesting dramatically than the story of someone who went overseas, served honorably, did well, and came home to lead a happy and normal life. In this regard, I part ways slightly with Jay Homnick, who disagrees profoundly with Tolstoy’s observation about the banality of happy familes:

The fact is both of Tolstoy’s propositions are dead wrong. All unhappy families resemble one another, but every happy family is happy in its own way. Are there real differences, interesting differences, between families unhappy due to too little money or strife over too much money? Does it matter if the husband had the affair or the wife did? If the father’s stubbornness prevents the cooperation, or the son’s ego? Nope, unhappy families are boring, with minimal variations on the theme of surly selfish individuals pulling in contrary directions.

It is happy families that are interesting, because each working combination breeds its own magic. It does not take much to disagree; disagreement is the natural state of entities with divergent wills; agreement is the novelty, one which must fashion its own original shape. This insight is the key to virtually every successful sitcom. The humorous and dramatic tension resides in the natural disparities the characters overcome to work together as a family.

Homnick is absolutely right about the physical realities, the day-to-day “you are thereness” of a happy family. There is a magical balancing act unique to each such family that is the envy of all those who can’t achieve that perfect harmony. (Hey, I can sing in tune, but I’ll never match the rich harmonies of, say, The Mamas And The Papas.) Nevertheless, what I think Homnick missed is that, artistically, unhappy is more compelling. Happiness is a matter of subtleties that work so invisibly that you simply can’t appreciate them — all you see is the end result, which is marvelous for those living it, but less compelling for those watching it. Stories of unhappiness, though, show all the gears and switches. They make the audience feel smug (“I’m doing better, thank God”), or less isolated (“I’m not the only one, thank God”).

So, I do understand why papers trying to sell themselves would prefer the tear jerker to the sunshine story. Nevertheless …. (You knew there are to be a caveat, didn’t you?)

I can’t help but feel that the MSM, with its obsessive focus on the tragedies, unrelieved by any news about vets who integrate just fine, is going beyond telling stories and into agenda-driven reporting. Sometimes after reading them, I have to remind myself that these are newspapers, not novels or Greek tragedies. Shouldn’t there be a bit more balance? I’ve noted before, and I’ll say again here, that I feel the newspapers are trying to repeat the Vietnam era canard of Vietnam Vet Syndrome.

Yes, war is Hell. Yes, men who have been in terrible battles never quite recover. But my own experience with my parents’ generation forces me to reject the “total trauma” therapeutic school that is modern journalism. My Dad was in hand-to-hand combat at El-Alamein. My Mom was in concentration camp. My uncle was in hill fighting in Italy. My parents friends were in Auschwitz. My Mom’s friends at her new community were at Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Bulge. All of them saw unimaginable things. All of them still get upset by what they saw. All of them went on to live normal, productive lives. Humans are, sadly, hard-wired for war. That hard-writing must mean that the majority of service people, having seen death and having killed, can nevertheless return to the fold of ordinary humanity and live normal lives aimed at creating subsequent generations — something that is, after all, our genetic destiny.

So forgive me for not wallowing in the NY Times’ and NPR’s and all the other paper’s sad tales of military woe. I know they’re true, I know they’re part of the human condition, I know that telling them sells papers, but I just dislike the way they seem weighted to satisfy a larger, anti-War agenda — especially coming as they do from people who, even as they sob over the soldiers, cheer cutting funds that would help protect soldiers from precisely these tragic situations.


5 Responses

  1. On the bright side, you’ll be able to recycle this story for any and all calamities that cause loss of life and property. Here’s how it’ll work:

    “The MSM loves human interest stories about profoundly damaged poor people returning to the Ninth Ward from the Astrodome.”

    or another example:

    “I can’t help but feel that the MSM, with its obsessive focus on the tragedies of those without health insurance, unrelieved by any news about those who invested just a little bit in an HSA and are now just fine, is going beyond telling stories and into agenda-driven reporting.”

    As you can see, Bookworm, you’ve created some quite powerful paragraphs that will serve you well time and time again.

  2. […] Bookworm Room, “Heart-rending Stories” […]

  3. Hey, Worm, you have not sold me. I used to live in Cincinnati, where one of the network affiliates, I forget which, bucked convention by focusing almost exclusively on good news. For the first time in a long time I began to watch network news with some regularity.

    I think the best art traces the conflict as it arcs into resolution. Conflict verging into dissolution draws the same audience as horror movies.

  4. Oh, and thanks infinitely for your years of loyal readership.

  5. […] 5. “Heart-rending Stories” by Bookworm Room […]

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