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12/12/2007
Christmas in Omaha
I've been strangely silent about what happened in an Omaha mall last week. Some of you know that I lived in Omaha for 10 years and that my parents still live there. It's where I met and married T. We moved from Omaha to D.C. for law school at GWU.

But what you don't know is that I worked at Westroads Mall during college. I'm intimately familiar with the mall. In fact, I remember when the Von Maur department store opened and how excited we all were. I would go sit in the atrium and listen to the piano player in the store, which, at the age of 20, I thought was the height of elegance. Yes, the atrium where people died.

You also don't know that my husband's family knew one of the victims. A man originally from their small corner of Southwest Nebraska, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time doing some Christmas shopping at the end of a business trip. His funeral was earlier this week.

Honestly, I've been struggling with what to say.

The fabulously honest DD wrote about the Omaha shootings earlier this week and she said many of the things I want to say. This kind of random violence can happen anywhere. The Omaha metropolitan area has more than 1 million people. There are drugs, and gangs, and poverty, and social problems that would curl your toes in Omaha. Just like there are in every city and town in America. Midwestern town does not equal problem free town. People of America, particularly those of you who are in the media, please stop acting so damn surprised.

There are many more things about the media coverage of the shooting in Omaha that anger me. Just as there are many things about sensationalist media coverage of any tragedy that anger me. But what has been unexpected to me is how frustrated I am at the attempt of every community, national and local, to "own" this tragedy.

Now in some ways, feeling personally touched by a horrible event half way across the country or half way around the world is wonderful. Americans follow the news anxiously if a child falls down a well or a country is overwhelmed by a tidal wave. This support can be wonderful for parents, communities, and countries. It can motivate politicians, presidents, and policy.

But this support has a dark side.

The night of the Omaha shooting, our local news channel ran a lead story about the shooting, followed by a segment on protecting yourself at the mall. I have no doubt that news stations across the country ran similar stories. Of course local stations and the broadcast networks are going to cover the shooting. Of course, they are going to address issues that come up peripherally. But they don't have to make it sensationalist. They don't have to put the fear of God in every viewer. They don't have to lead with "Can it happen here? We ask local experts." We shouldn't have to experience 5 straight hours of CNN coverage that makes us think, "Oh. My. God. I will never enter a mall again without an Uzi to protect myself and my children!"

I call this the Fox News Effect.

I know that media outlets are responding to interest in a tragedy when they run segments like this, but these stories do two things: (1) they make us more fearful than is necessary; and (2) they trivialize the tragedies themselves.

Can it happen to you? Or you, or you, or you? Yes, of course it can. Is it likely? Um, no. Instead of focusing on the fear, why can't we have a rational discussion about mental illness? Even better, why can't we talk about how yellow journalism can drive people to do things like this in an attempt to become "famous?"

This focus on fear also moves the focus of the story (and the support of the viewing public) from where it should be - support of the victims, their families, their communities, and the underlying social problems that cause this sort of violence - to us, the viewing public, and what we can do to protect ourselves.

I know that if we stopped watching and voiced our displeasure, news outlets would stop. They run these stories because we watch them. But these stories play into our personal fears. Fears newly awakened by watching frightened and crying customers shivering in the parking lot in the aftermath. We start to think about ourselves instead of others.

In some ways, I felt the same after 9/11. I lived in D.C. I worked at the Pentagon during law school. My friends and colleagues were in that building. So were some of T's. We, and pretty much everyone we knew, were touched by death and despair. We knew the families, the wives, husbands, and children left behind. We drove past the gaping hole in the side of that imposing building every day. We saw the smoke. We felt the impact. We lived with the aftermath. We picked up the pieces and struggled to get on the Metro every day without fear. We boarded planes and pretended to be nonchalant as we prepared for take off.

Meanwhile, every small town in America started fighting over Homeland Security funds and freaking out about guarding the local water supply for a town of 500.

I'm not entirely sure why this made me so angry. But whenever I heard stories about things like that I just wanted to scream. It made me feel as if what had happened to my world was not important. As if what had happened in New York and D.C. was not as important as some hypothetical attack on Kansas City.

This is not to say that the rest of the country had no right to be scared or that no support was rallied. I think we all know how wonderful it was to live in the United States in the wake of 9/11, despite the fear. Americans pulled together in a way we rarely do. I also don't think everyone should act as if another 9/11 scale attack couldn't happen again and do nothing. But for God's sake, when I hear someone from a tiny town in the Northwest talking about the possibility of a terrorist attack at their local Piggly Wiggly, I just want to shake them. I want to shake them until they see the world beyond their personal space.

I know that the people of Omaha will pick up the pieces and move on. But I also know that they'll remember the victims this Christmas while they're in church and while they're gathered with their families, despite the lingering stories.

I know that many people in Omaha will be thinking of those families that are now missing a loved one. They'll be pulling together in support, true support, of those families. That is a facet of the Midwest that I know will always be the same, no matter how many journalists descend on the area.

What also gives me comfort is the knowledge that, despite what happened, the next time I go into Von Maur, or any store in Westroads Mall, I'll be greeted again with a sunny smile and a warm welcome. Because that's just how the people of Omaha roll.

This is for Julie's Hump Day Hmmm for the week. She tasked us with writing about our unique pet peeves.

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I have a new review up of the Autolite Flareglo on my review blog. If you're safety conscious, you'll want this for your emergency car kit.

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24 Comments:

Blogger Emily said...

You really put that perfectly. People like to make themselves the center of an imaginary drama, not realizing that this takes away from the tragedy other people are actually experiencing.

Blogger Mrs. Chicken said...

This was perfectly written, so clear, sympathetic and reasoned. I, too, see the 9/11 effect. As a former journalist I see the axiom "If it bleeds, it leads" taken to an irresponsible extreme.

Outstanding, LM.

Blogger Gwen said...

Great writing, LM. You articulate so well what's troubling about these stories. I worry about the levels of narcissism on display. It's does not bode well for our country's future, I fear.

Blogger Moondance said...

Hear, hear!

It is sad that the public service purpose of the broadcast news obligation has been premepted by the commercial benefit received by attracting viewers by finding the lowest common demoninator.

Blogger Oh, The Joys said...

I hate the whole American culture of fear thing.

Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Emily - That's exactly what I meant. You managed to say in 1 sentence, what I rambled on about for several paragraphs!

Thanks, Mrs. C. That compliment means a lot coming from you. And from you too, Gwen. I know there are so many responsible journalists out there, but lately it seems like TV is always reaching for the lowest denominator, just like Moondance said.

And OTJ, yes, it is creating and playing into a culture of fear.

Blogger Julie Pippert said...

Brilliant, LM!!!

Oh you hit on something that for me is a peeve at least but possibly deeper than a peeve: misplaced projection, yellow journalism, and culture of fear. In other words: our country today.

It's dangerous.

The journalism axiom of "take the news and relate it to our viewers/readers" has taken a diabolical spin.

Excellent post.

Julie
Using My Words

Blogger Sunshine said...

Obviously, with my proximity to Omaha living in Western Iowa, the coverage of this tragedy has been non-stop. While I did not know any of the victims, people I know did and have a connection to it.
I understand your "ownership" of it, when it is something that does happen close to home and news outlets from all over hither and yon swoop in for the drama factor.
Omaha will roll just fine and the next time I shop at Westroads, I know I'll see smiling faces too because people will take great care of these families. As soon as the news crews get the hell out of the way and stop asking them "how they feel". I hate that shit.
Very good post and well said.

Blogger Mrs. G. said...

This is an incredible post...lurker de-lurking here. We don't need to learn how to be safe at the mall. I'm tired and weary of the fear mongering. We need gun control and proper, affordable health care for the mentally ill.

Blogger Treadmillista said...

Great post, and so very true. We all cope with tragedy in our own ways, but the local news giving me the "Minnesota Connection" to every big story makes me ill.

When the Minneapolis bridge collapsed this summer we expected non-stop coverage and national attention, but after a few days it grew old and we wanted to move on in our own way. We were all going through the what-ifs, the oh my god I've driven over that bridge thousands of times feelings. No amount of press coverage and reports about how you *would* get your two children out of their carseats when your car unexpectantly fell hundreds of feet down into a rushing river were doing anyone any favors.

Let's talk about how we can let our infrastructure fail to this point, let's talk about how there is no real mental health care for people without health insurance, let's get to the real issues and stop focusing on why we should live our lives in fear.

Blogger flutter said...

I think you managed to sum this up with such clarity and grace.

Beautiful.

Blogger jen said...

oh honey, what a beautiful post. i am sure it was very difficult to write and yet you did it with such grace.

Blogger blooming desertpea said...

Great post. You showed the reality of our society: Too many selfish people and too many sensationalistic journalists - it's all about them and not about the ones who suffer.

Blogger ALM said...

Thank you. You voiced what I've been feeling but just couldn't find the right words for....

Blogger Mrs. Chicky said...

What you described is exactly what contributes to me not sleeping at night after tragedies like this. It's hard not to hear it or watch it because it's everywhere. But I don't understand how keeping the country in fear benefits anyone.

Fear is what keeps Americans from questioning our government. And the Fox Network is what keeps us all scared. It's enough to make me want to stop watching the news altogether.

Blogger Mad Hatter said...

I have been so busy for the last week and a bit such that I don't think I've made it round for a visit. This post, though, is a reminder to me of why I adore you and why it feels like coming into a good friend's kitchen/living room/salon each time I arrive. Thank you for such a well-written and spot-on post.

Blogger Christine said...

amen.

i couldn't have said it any better my self.

xoxo

Running on empty

Blogger Justice Jones said...

Amen to that! I also get annoyed with the sensationalism. At every opportunity the media will go way overboard. With experts on this, and experts on that. These experts on not fortune tellers for crying out loud. It's a lot of speculation. We lived in DC during the sniper shootings. This was such a horrible time for DC and the last thing I wanted to see was story after story about serial killers and who the sniper was. As we all know, they had it ALL wrong.

Blogger Part time Mommy said...

I hate that. I hate that the media gives 'those' people exactly what they want. The 'fame'. I hate the way it goes on for weeks and weeks too. 'What if this happened to you'? Drives me insane. what would happen if just for once, the media made mention and let it go? Not let the shooter (or whomever it may be) eat at so many peoples lives? Then there would probabally be a lot less people shooting up places. It made one person *famous* so it'll make me famous too. Let it go already. Don't give these people what they want!

Blogger dawn224 said...

You are right on - I actually refused to pay attention to the news about it? Why? Because one of the first reports was that he said "now I'll be famous". Well screw that. I refuse to let him be famous in my mind, and I wish the news outlets would have taken that away from him too.

Blogger Alpha DogMa said...

Well said. Very, very, very well said. I was nodding my head in agreement for the entire piece.

Those 'how to keep yourself safe from random bad things that are statistically unlikely to touch you directly' news items drive me batty. The people who produce them should be made to watch Micheal Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" over and over and over again until they finally get a frickin' clue.

Blogger ewe are here said...

Beautifully written.

The fear-mongering, let's talk about how it could possibly, potentially in an alternate universe until we're all nauseous by the so-called news channels has got to stop.

Blogger Omaha Mama said...

Just clicked over here from Mad's. I say yep to it all. But honestly couldn't even read it all. I've barely watched more than the bare details because it's all been too much. Too sad. Local media really pissed me off too. You should have listened to the radio minutes after it had happened. It was horrible. There were a few stations who did it right.

I'm sorry about your family friend. And for all of the victims.

But I'm glad you could write about it. And maybe some day I'll be able to read it all more clearly.

It's just too much right now.

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