Posts Tagged ‘sensationalism’

Fame by Association

At eight years of age, I discovered that if you yourself are not famous, the next best thing is to have some connection with a person who is. One of my older brothers was hit by a Model-A Ford as he was crossing the street, and, at school, I became known as “the sister of the kid who got run over.” This kind of notoriety was a heady experience for a third-grader with no major, or even minor, achievements to brag about. But I recognized an opportunity when I saw it. I summoned all my capabilities for the dramatic to capitalize on my brother’s misfortune.

“Yes,” I said somberly, “all three of the bones in his right leg are broken. He had a compound fracture. He’s still in shock.” I was quoting verbatim my mother’s telephone conversation with her sister in Denver.

“What’s a compound fracture?”

I had asked the same question myself, but now I acted as if this were the sort of thing any well-informed person ought to know. With an air of condescension I explained, “It’s when broken bones stick out through your skin—one of my brother’s bones was sticking clear out of his pant leg.”

There was a collective gasp. I savored the incomparable satisfaction of being the focus of a ring of appalled faces. My classmates were aghast and agog.

The main problem with sensationalism, however, is that it dissipates quickly if not replenished with new and juicy tidbits. I was able to maintain my position of vicarious celebrity for about a week by issuing daily bulletins of a quasi medical nature.

First, I described the trapeze placed over my brother’s bed to help him shift positions a little. To hear me tell it, he was performing incredible acrobatic feats on some complex mechanism. I drew a picture of his leg in a foot-to-hip plaster cast in an impossibly elevated position with an enormous weight dangling from it.

Then I talked about the young cowpuncher in the room across the hall from my brother. “He fell off his horse and he’s in a coma. He hasn’t come to for six weeks. His head’s all bandaged up. I can see right into his room and watch him breathe.”

After that I announced I had counted three doors at our small hospital with “No Visitors” signs. “That means the people are probably dying.” I explained callously.

Finally, digging really deep, I mentioned the guinea pigs in the hospital basement. “They keep them there for experiments. They give them germs to eat and then wait to see how sick they get and if they’re going to die.”

After that, I was out of ideas. (My brother recovered without a limp and lived another sixty-five years.)

What triggered the foregoing memories was a recent trip to the super-market. I was in a slow-moving line and all of us in the queue had time to study the lurid covers on the display of tabloids. The man standing behind me was outraged by what he saw.

“Who in the world thinks up all this wild stuff!” he exclaimed to his wife.

“Oh, probably a group of cynical types have a conference and try to decide what’s the most outlandish thing they can publish about some celebrity without being sued,” she replied.

“Well, if I was Prince Charles, I’d sure sue somebody over that picture,” he said, pointing to a maximally unflattering photo of the prince with Camilla. “They look like an ad for people with acute allergies.”

“And, look here! You’re not even safe when you’re dead! They keep resurrecting Jackie Onassis and the Kennedys and even poor little Jon-Benet Ramsey—-wouldn’t you think they could let them rest in peace!”

“People always want a connection to the rich and famous, dead or alive,” his wife responded.

“I’d say the people who print this stuff have got to be pretty hard-up for material!”

The man had put his finger precisely on the problem I encountered decades ago. Even if your original material is good, it has to be constantly augmented and judiciously embellished to hold public interest. Eventually, no matter what you do, the subject matter grows thin. I could have told him that keeping the public aghast and agog for any length of time is no simple undertaking.