Public Quickly Tires of Stars it Creates

I was amazed by the response I got to last week’s column.

I wrote about a report on CBS’s "The Early Show" concerning a young man named Brian Simpson. Simpson had so severe a case of asthma that doctors despaired of his ever living a normal life. In fact, they despaired of his living a normal life span; they feared he would die in a few more years, and that he would be terribly incapacitated in the interim. 

To make the time remaining to him as pleasant as possible, Simpson turned to the oboe. It seemed a perverse idea. Oboes are demanding instruments; it would seem as difficult for an asthmatic to play the oboe as it would be for a person with one arm to play the piano.

But somehow, almost magically, the instrument’s demands strengthened Brian Simpson’s lungs, and did so to such an extent that his lungs now function better than they have in years.  As a result, his life has become filled with hope as well as music. And he will, apparently, not only prosper but endure.

Hundreds of people wrote to me about the column, virtually all of them delighted that so inspiring a story had forced its way through the constant media menu of murder and mayhem, scandal and deception. The credit, of course, is much more "The Early Show’s" than mine.

But the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that there is something else involved here. Brian Simpson’s story did not elicit so overwhelming a response just because it is positive, heartwarming, optimistic; it elicited so overwhelming a response because the star of the story is . . . well, not a star.

Elizabeth Smart is a star, and we are sick of her. We remain sympathetic to the horrible events which brought her to public notice, but we are appalled by her family’s obsession to turn those events into air time and a book and a continuing wallow in the public eye.

Jessica Lynch is a star, and we are sick of her. We remain sympathetic to the events which brought her to public notice, but we have had enough. More air time, another book -- and we are not even sure what happened to her or to what extent, if any, her rescue was stage-managed.  We are sure only that the man who seems most responsible for the rescue, PFC Patrick Miller, a person who genuinely deserves some public attention, was known to hardly anyone until his genuine heroics were reported last week on CBS’s "60 Minutes."

The irony of stories like Elizabeth Smart’s and Jessica Lynch’s is that the media become so fixated on them that they subvert their goals in providing all that publicity in the first place. They want us to feel compassion for Elizabeth Smart, but they so overdo their case that we simply want her and her family to go away. They want us to feel admiration for Jessica Lynch, but they so overdo this particular case that we begin to wonder whether we are being informed or manipulated. We want her to go away, too. When victimization leads to a quality so debased in our society as fame, the fame cannot help but dilute the compassion that we feel for the victims.

The fault is the media’s, for shining their spotlights so relentlessly. And the fault is their subjects, for insisting on a higher wattage. 

And so we react, in part by longing to hear the stories of human beings who are not so ragingly self-promotional. We want to hear about men and women who are not the subjects of TV movies or hastily-written, trashed-up biographies; we want to hear about men and women who do not fall into the clutches of the shameful Barbara Walters and the unctuous Diane Sawyer for prime-time interviews.

We want to hear about Brian Simpson, and we will remember him all the more fondly for telling his tale but once, whispering at us rather than shouting, giving us, in the long run, a fond memory rather than a persistent headache.

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. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).

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