Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Media and Magic Bullets

Regardless of the amount of money that it’s been taking in and the TV ratings it’s been getting, professional wrestling has gone to pot in recent years. Whereas once it had a lighthearted, fun superhero quality, it has become little more, it seems to me, than some sort of extended thug fantasy where heels continually fight heels for supremacy. Keep in mind that I’m someone who spent years watching wrestling. Yes, I know it’s all gimmicked and cheesy, but it was fun and some of the performers displayed remarkable athleticism. I was defending wrestling against its nay-sayers up to a few a years ago. Indeed, I’ve no problem with the popularity of wrestling as it stands today, I just have no taste for it and would not, for example, want my young nephew to watch it. There are few ring personas today that I can get behind and essentially none that I would want my nephew looking up to.

One of the few was Chris Benoit.

Over the weekend, he murdered his family and committed suicide.

How great is our capacity to err in our judgments .

I don’t see much need to detail to the case here, as it’s been all over the major media outlets and has been the top story on FoxNews.com, surpassing even a fatal F-15 crash and the appointment of Gordon Brown as the new British Prime Minister, since at least Tuesday morning. (As of this writing, approx. 8:17 PM EST on the 28th of June, this is still the case.) What I’m interested in talking about is what my old sociology professor used to call “Magic Bullet Syndrome”. Basically it means the reduction of a complex set of causes into one simple cause, and it has been exemplified in the “roid rage” gobbledygook that the media has seen fit to attach to this case.

That Benoit murdered his wife and son seems no longer to be in doubt. The motive these gruesome crimes, however, is as yet unknown. It appears that Benoit’s wife had sought protection from him several years ago and that there was a history of domestic disturbances. It has come out that Benoit’s son suffered from a genetic disorder that left him mentally disabled and that this was a source of great stress in the family. It likewise seems to be the case the Benoit’s extensive (300+ days per year) traveling schedule had become a point of contention with his wife. And yes, Benoit was on steroids.

Any of these, or indeed all of these combined, could have resulted in this tragedy. Perhaps in time, with proper investigation, we’ll eventually find out something close to the truth. But the desire on the part of the media to slap together a nicely alliterated catchphrase and drive it home again and again and again is frustrating. It’s insulting to the intelligence of the public and to families of the victims. Fox News especially seems to be almost glorying in this, dare I say as another aspect of the fabled culture war. At one point this afternoon they had the death (weeks ago) of former wrestler and valet Sherri Martel as a headline story, apparently to heighten the image of a spate of wrestling deaths.

I’m not saying that steroids couldn't have played a role in this situation. I’m skeptical that they were the only factor, as the current “roid rage” talk would have us believe. The desire on the part of some aspects of the media to reduce everything, even complex, horrible tragedies like this into sound bites is something that the media needs to be called on. We see it almost every aspect of reporting, from stem cells to politics to capital crimes, and it’s not doing anyone any good. Sometimes things take a little longer to explain than a sports score. Sometimes it takes more than a couple of days after an event to get to the full story. As Carl Sagan used to say, sometimes it’s okay to say you that don’t know until more evidence comes in.

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