A good illustration of the collusion between axe-grinding victims and the cynical media that exploit them appeared after one of last year’s presidential debates: a placard was crassly put up in “spin alley” to direct reporters to “9-11 widows” who were eager to provide them with quotes disparaging George Bush for not making the right noises during the debate.
Cindy Sheehan and the media’s manipulative use of her brings this episode back to mind. We’re witnessing a replay of the media’s cynical catering to the 9-11 widows, dubbed the “Jersey Girls,” which began with great interest but then trailed off in proportion to the media’s embarrassment about their wildly imprecise and boring charges. The media, thrilled to have something to work with during the dog days of August, will soon lose interest in Sheehan too.
Owing in large part to the microscopic powers of the Internet and talk radio, the mainstream media now realize that they can only get away with using axe-grinding victims to advance their agenda for so long. As news of the victims’ dangerously ill-conceived views becomes well-known through the alternative media, mainstream reporters, if only out of self-consciousness, stop using these victims as proxies for their biases.
The media know that grief doesn’t confer upon a person instant lucidity and authority, though they act as if it does, provided the grief inspires a political position they favor. Had Sarah Brady, say, responded to her husband’s gun injury by joining the staff of the NRA, the media wouldn’t have paid the slightest bit of attention to her except maybe for purposes of mockery. Obviously the media aren’t interested in assuaging Sheehan’s grief — were a bigger story to break they would desert her in a second, as they even did to their persecuted colleague Judith Miller after Bush announced John Roberts as his Supreme Court nominee.
What the media are interested in is Sheehan’s politics, and the window of that interest will close for good once the public learns of her ambitiously radical views — that Bush should be impeached as a war criminal, that America is an abomination not worth defending against terrorists, and so forth. In the end, the media will probably have added to her grief once they take away from her the new life of celebrity activism they have encouraged her to pursue in the absence of the life of her son.
Sheehan doesn’t speak for war widows and grieving moms any more than the Jersey Girls spoke for all relatives of 9-11 victims. And like them, Sheehan hasn’t crafted her case very carefully or modestly. Just as the Jersey Girls acted as though their grief somehow made them experts on rearranging the CIA and entitled them to harangue Condi Rice, so Sheehan is making outrageous demands upon the military’s commander in chief — demands only possible in a democracy in which a fatuous media can get its leaders, who are supposed to be thinking about the common good, entangled in all sorts of absurd and superficial controversies.
What the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz said about the 9/11 windows is worth recalling in light of the Sheehan spectacle. One of them, Kristen Breitwester, had submitted an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal. Rabinowitz advised against running it, saying that it was “total and complete nonsense — not to mention repetitive nonsense — nonsense from people given endless media access to repeat the very same stupid charges, suspicions, and the rest….this is just an opportunity for these absurd products of the zeitgeist — women clearly in the grip of the delusion that they know something, have some policy, and wisdom not given to the rest of us to know — to grab the spotlight.”
Ultimately, the media tuned them out, especially, as liberals complained, after they endorsed John Kerry and their overt liberal partisanship made it impossible for the media to treat them as sainted experts.
Sheehan is one of these absurd products of the zeitgeist that Rabinowitz describes — a zeitgeist that gravitates to grief for commercial and ideological, not human, reasons. Sheehan, too, may find herself, as Breitwester did, standing forlornly beneath a placard announcing her grief and loss, hoping that some reporter will stop and give her the jolt of celebrity that substitutes in a twisted culture for the comfort of real compassion.