I thought it was risky to write a column about Bob Greene last week, disapproving of his behavior as I did, questioning his character as I did, yet seeming to take his side because of what I believed to be a larger principle.
It is no less risky to write a column about Madelyne Toogood this week. I disapprove of her behavior, too. I question her character, too. Yet, once again, I think there is a larger principle here.
So do a lot of viewers of Fox News Watch, who have written to me about the videotape which shows Toogood apparently beating her four-year-old daughter in the back seat of an SUV in an Indiana parking lot.
Nanette Lilly, Sullivan, Illinois: "The media’s relentless persecution of Mrs. Toogood is reprehensible."
John Balliet, Estes Park, Colorado: "When surveillance videos . . . turn from protecting stores into situations like this, the video should be inadmissible."
Jim Hubbell from Whitesboro, Texas: "When I heard the Fox News buildup, I thought they had Machine-Gun Kelly and Clyde Barrow surrounded."
J.W. Brooks, Phenix City, Alabama: "[H]ad the media not so sensationalized this, it would be over."
It is more accurate to say, Mr. Brooks, that the story would never have started were it not for the media, i.e., that Madelyne Toogood’s transgression is a story solely because there are pictures of it. If so, it calls into question the very definition of news.
Imagine that there were no pictures? Imagine that an eyewitness to Toogood’s deed had had to describe it to a newspaper reporter? The reporter would not even have clicked down the point on his pen. Imagine an eyewitness describing Toogood’s actions to a TV reporter? The reporter would have not even have mentioned it to his producer.
I understand why TV news was so attracted to the Toogood story. What the woman did was reprehensible, and it struck a chord in many people that was well worth striking. Which is to say that it raised the issue of parental protectiveness, and offended all parents who care about it, parents who are doing much better than Madelyne Toogood seems to be doing at nurturing their children and raising them responsibly.
Toogood’s irresponsibility was startling. In raising a perfectly valid issue, it seems to me, the media made too much of one particular case.
But more troubling to me about what the story has become is what it might portend. There are so many surveillance cameras in America today, so many home video cameras, so many opportunities for pictures to be taken of small events that seem much larger because they are caught on tape, of lapses in judgment that seem like criminal deeds because they can be played and replayed and replayed again.
With the repeated showings, of course, comes repeated impact. Some viewers, like those cited earlier in this column, are offended; they believe the impact to be unjustified, and find their reactions dulled by it. Others are persuaded; they believe that the impact is a proper gauge of the story’s true importance.
But both kinds of viewers should be wary. They should realize that pictures are the essence of television news, but in cases like this they should ask themselves---and should hope television news executives are asking themselves---whether the pictures assist the medium with its coverage of events or control it? Are the pictures servant or master? One must hope that the answer is the former, and that the Madelyne Toogood case does not eventually result in the evening newscast turning into America’s Grimmest Home Videos.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .