The bigger the problem…the less we care

Elton Wong

If you ever tried to form a reasonable, coherent world view based on what is presented in the news media, you wouldn’t get very far. If you were really serious about accomplishing this task, you could start by noticing that much media content is related only to itself, in the form of reporting on entertainment and celebrities who are part of the media/culture industry in the first place.

You would have to go through and systematically ignore this part. After that, you would have to wonder why sports are apparently important enough to get their own newspaper section and segment on the nightly news.

You would really have to discard all of that stuff too. Even after you did all this, you would still be left with the daunting task of deciding which parts of the news are really important and which parts are just put in to sell papers and get ratings.

Thus, it is a sort of irony that the news media pretend to educate people about the world when they actually spend a great deal of time presenting people with what they want to hear.

What’s more, the media get to decide what people want to hear by reporting it in the first place and making them think it’s important. This process yields curious results, one of which is the “human interest” story.

Take the case of young Elian Gonzalez. This story has been gone over many times, and there is no real need to repeat in detail many of the good points that have been made about this case.

Basically, a young Cuban refugee was pulled from the ocean on Thanksgiving Day under tragic circumstances. Now everyone from the INS to Castro to Janet Reno is trying to decide where the boy’s rightful home is.

As a result, six-year-old Elian is being used as a symbol by everyone to express their views on immigration, communist dictatorships and family values.

If it weren’t for the fact that Elian happened to be found on Thanksgiving Day and thus happened to attract a great deal of media attention, he would have been nothing more than one of the faceless thousands of immigrants and refugees who try to enter the United States.

Admittedly, Elian’s case is tragic. It must be realized, however, that his case is no more tragic than many thousands of others who have made the same journey and have not been the subject of intense media scrutiny.

People are not able to feel sympathy unless they are manipulated in certain ways. Elian is cute and telegenic; he looks just like the kid next door. Thus our parental instincts are triggered, and we are concerned with the boy’s well-being.

This would not be bad if our concern for the boy sparked greater concern for the many who share his plight. This is not happening.

This case is about the particular. He has a face and a voice so what happens to Elian is important; what happens to the unnumbered masses is not. Elian has become a celebrity, a creation of the media and a political icon of sorts.

Perhaps the most characteristic example of this is to be found in politicians such as George W. “Border Patrol” Bush. Bush showed his concern for the boy’s well-being by suggesting that the boy’s father come to the United States and decide what is in the child’s best interest.

As has been pointed out, this is an odd thing to hear from the governor of Texas, where illegal immigrants from Mexico are regularly hunted down, rounded up and deported. Perhaps Bush thinks it is in their best interest.

Elian was on the cover of this week’s Time; he shared it with Regis Philbin who was shown holding a wad of cash.

On the cover of Newsweek was a story about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, which has killed almost 14 million and left a generation of orphans in its wake.

The problem is scale. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around millions. There is no single face to rally behind, no simple step to take. There have been no protests demanding the U.S. government aid the nations of Africa.

Hopefully, this will change. Let us keep a sense of perspective when we examine the world around us.

Elton Wong is a junior in biology and philosophy from Ames.