As I walked my dog on the morning of June 7th., 2003, the sky was dank and gray and schmizzling with rain. Los Angeles was acting suspiciously more like Seattle or London than sunny Southern California.
You guessed it, today I had to go to a funeral. In movies and real life, it always seems to rain at funerals—symbolically fitting—as if the universe is crying along with us.
The woman who had died was the wife of one of my dear friends, though I didn't know her as well as I know him. She was not famous and there had been no incident that attracted national attention, thus the funeral service was correctly limited to family and friends.
Little did I know that the events of that morning would color the article I was going to write that afternoon.
When Private Grief Becomes Public
When I got to my office, I began writing an article about the recent crash of a small plane into an apartment building here in Southern California. It was one of those tragic accidents that momentarily rivets public awareness. At latest count, five people had died and several others were injured.
Typically, a local incident like this would not be picked up by national media. But we now have such a different perception of what it means when airplanes fly into buildings, that the moment we heard this news, our 9/11 alert meters started beeping. Could it be another terrorist attack?
Local and network television stations rushed crews and reporters to the scene, accompanied by the hyper-present helicopters, giving aerial views of the nearly demolished building. Within minutes of the crash, live photos were being transmitted into our living rooms.
There were instant interviews with witnesses, as well as several of those who were fortunate enough to escape without injury, along with the terrifying amateur video footage of the plane's kamikaze-like dive into the building.
And, if they haven't already happened, there will soon be those awkward interviews with grieving relatives and friends.
Ghoulish Interviews with Stunned Grievers
That's our topic today—those sometimes ghoulish interviews with people who have just been shocked into numbness by the death of a loved one, and moments later find themselves talking on camera, to the world.
Do you recall the interview with Rusty Yates on the front lawn of his suburban Houston home, shortly after he'd learned that his wife had drowned their five children? I do. It was one of the most painful things I've ever witnessed.
He seemed to be in a total state of shock. He stood there as if he was trying to decide if the grass needed mowing. I didn't know Mr. Yates then, nor do I know him now. I just always felt that it wasn't right for me or anyone else to be peering into his heart and soul at that moment in time.
I was very upset that the interview was conducted at all, but even more upset that it was televised all over the world. What still baffles me is the decision to run the interview. It did nothing to advance the public's right to know, and even less for the dignity of Mr. Yates. The tape should have gone in the dustbin, or maybe in the network's archive file. But it never should have been shown on television.
Grief Is Not A Spectator Sport
Grief is not a game to be played at the expense of those whose lives have recently been turned upside down by deaths and other tragedies. Yes, the public has a right, and in some situations, a need to know about events. But there's no need to destroy people's dignity by invading their innermost lives at a time when their heads cannot possibly be computing very well.
The line between our right to know and ratings-based voyeurism seems all-too-thin sometimes.
Information, yes. Public humiliation, no!