"How dare that mom take her eyes off her baby! I hope mama rots in a jail cell every bit as dark and damp as the well!!"
That is not at all what America was saying 32 years ago when 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell 22 feet down an abandoned well in Midland, TX. She was trapped for two and a half days, during which a microphone was lowered down to hear her singing and crying. On Oct. 16, 1987, she was at last pulled to safety as a massive audience watched on live TV. Vice President Bush visited her. Pres. Reagan made a phone call.
In this brilliant essay, author Maria Reppas considers how much more massive and florid the reporting would be today compared to back when the country was just desperately hoping the baby would live, rather than screaming for the mother's head. Although CNN did cover the story relentlessly, "its coverage would be nowhere near as intense as it would be today." What's more:
CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc. would have self-proclaimed experts, with no direct connection to anyone involved, giving interviews about the conditions, her health, how Jessica was feeling, what she is aware of, what the first responders were feeling, and any other possible detail.
Interviewees would consist of anyone with the tiniest self-proclaimed connection to the McClure family -- relatives, coworkers, high school friends, former teachers, etc. Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper would be constantly flashing computerized simulations of the structure of the well and Jessica’s and emergency personnel’s exact location. Joe Scarborough would be interrupting Mika Brzezinski to try to connect this incident to a Congressional failure on well safety. Fox News would air a few conspiracy theories as to how Jessica got down there or if she was even down there at all. Nancy Grace would gleefully scrutinize the McClures’ teenage marriage and parenting skills, while demanding that Cissy McClure be immediately arrested and prosecuted for harming her child. Every network would be running a Baby Jessica clock that showed how long she had been in the well.
But even more interesting than Maria's imagined media response was her observation about the reaction of regular folks:
Twitter would have multiple accounts floating conspiracy theories, requests for thoughts and prayers, thousands of users claiming they are friends with the McClures, and extreme public displays of grief.
It's those public displays that are so confounding. On the one hand, isn't this the empathy we all believe in -- a reminder that we're all connected? On the other hand, isn't there something disturbing about vying to look the most distraught? What is it that makes our over-the-top "connecting" so suspect? Is it the emotional overkill? The desire to be part of a story one is not actually a part of? The ability, unavailable in 1987, to post our thoughts to the world?
Or is it something else?
We'd love you to think about this with us -- and about any other changes in the way we react to child tragedies and near-misses today. One easy reference point is the incident where the kid fell into the gorilla enclosure. The rush to condemn the mom was breathtaking. So please share your thoughts on how we weigh in on child tragedies. Thanks! -- L.S.