By Myles Ludwig
The Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath is a McLuhanesque moment: the medium has indeed finally become the message.
This is in no way meant to trivialize the events and the horror and the victims and the PTSD that the citizens of Boston and perhaps all of America will need to find a way to recover from.
This story had many of the characteristics of Aristotelian tragedy ― plot, character, importance, diction, melody (the applause of Watertown residents for the police) diction and catharsis ― except it was no imitation of the action. It was real and the compelling, unhappy drama unfolded before our eyes while traditional avenues of narrative struggled to keep up.
It was, it is a pivotal moment in the history of journalism, a story told from the inside out, by those who were inside the action as it happened, reported in real time while mainstream news anchors were sidelined in network studios or held in a herd behind crime tape in a Watertown Target parking lot.
It was the final nail in the coffin of newspaper journalism.
Images of the bombing victims were frightening, but by now, after Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, gore had become part of our daily diet. It was the manhunt that captured our attention.
Social media found its métier in this story told in bits and pieces: tweets, blogs, Reddit posts, Skype calls, Google people searches and Bing photos of the house and covered boat that was not ark enough. It was the beginning of the end of TV news, which had supplanted radio broadcasting. The last time TV had the value of immediacy was in the coverage of 9/11 and before that, the Kennedy assassination and the on-air shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Despite their screaming “breaking news banners,” the familiar faces of broadcast journalism, the media scrum, were left helpless and largely clueless. Looking pinched and lost, Matt Lauer barked for attention at the scene of the Texas fertilizer plant explosion; histrionic Savannah Guthrie’s reporting was as breathless as a Brenda Starr on her first Big Story, though she did score a Skyperview. A hapless Lester Holt stood on a street corner with nothing to say as if he’d left his bass at home while the band played on. Anderson Cooper, the former journo-hero of New Orleans, curdled.
TV covered it like a sports event: telescopic shots of uniforms, flashing lights and close-ups of the scoreboard of tweets and posts. In fact, Today’s weekend hostess Erica Miller thanked one spectator for providing “play by play.”
Only CBS’s Charlie Rose and Scott Pelly, aided by the inside information and quiet dignity of John Miller and Bob Orr, had the grace and gravitas to tell the story as best they could and to keep their mouths shut when they couldn’t.
According to Reddit, “users have begun crowdsourcing an investigation into the Boston terrorist attack. A new subreddit called Findbostonbombers had over 870 subscribers and 1,600 visitors on Tuesday, April 16, who were analyzing photos, parsing through video, and conducting third-party forensic analysis of the Boston Marathon attack independent of law enforcement. Commenters and contributors to the subreddit are posting a mixture of useful analysis, misguided amateurism, and racist or anti-gun activist invective.”
We needed an editor to separate truth from speculation, to provide some kind of authority of fact, but we had no need for instant interpretation and commentators struggling to provide meaning.
“This is not an episode from ‘NCIS,’” the tough Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano testily told a congressional investigating committee.
An apt metaphor.
Myles Ludwig is a media savant living in Lake Worth.