As everyone should know by now, Anna Nicole Smith died one week ago, Feb. 8. I didn’t have to double-check the date because I remember specifically when and how I found out – I was at work – and this sticks out to me not because of any personal significance it had for me, but rather because of the reactions I observed in others.

Both plasma screen TVs at the Information Technology Center – one of which constantly displays CNN – were tuned to the 24-hour news station just as this story was breaking, so I had the unique opportunity to listen in on the broadcast, as well as the responses of students who were just finding out.

Most were in the vein of “Oh my God” or “Is that real?” – though some of the more interesting remarks were “How did she die, from TrimSpa?” and the somewhat malevolent, “There is justice; there is justice.” People were stopping in their tracks, just to watch and find out what had happened – students, employees and security personnel; everyone’s day was put on pause for a few short seconds for this direct download of information.

The conclusion was obvious: this is big news. This is the kind of news that moves paper, that keeps the 24-hour broadcasts buzzing. It begs the question, if the headlines that afternoon were “Massive Earthquake in India” or “Forty Killed in Iraq Blast,” how would this capture our attention, or would it at all?

I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that people are apathetic or uncaring – if FOX News, Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch have taught us anything, it’s that we (almost) Ivy Leaguers are a bunch of ivory-tower, liberal bleeding hearts. But are we somewhat desensitized to the violence and suffering around the world that is constantly being brought before our eyes? Absolutely. That’s probably why last week’s headline was so special and (albeit morbidly) fascinating. Young, rich, famous, beautiful woman dies (not unlike, ironically, Marilyn Monroe) – all makings of a good, intriguing story.

A good story sells, and in today’s Fourth Estate, that’s what counts (I suppose, putting a fresh spin on the “marketplace of ideas”). This recently coined genre of “infotainment” pioneered by the giant conglomerates that control our mass media is practically fortified by what we’ve just seen – good news is that which captivates us, rouses us, draws us in.

Maybe that’s part of the problem that led Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to assert in Strong Auditorium last semester that Americans are among “the best entertained and the least informed” people in the world.

As a member of the afore-featured PSC 217 – Politics in Mass Media – it was a bit disappointing that class couldn’t be held last Monday. No doubt, this story would have been great discussion fodder. But by next week’s seminar, there will be new top stories, and the headline that may have caught our attention before will likely be out of mind – the modern news cycle at work.

Cutshall is a member of the class of 2009.

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