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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2003 / 2 Adar I, 5763

Lenore Skenazy

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Welcome to Mourning TV | A CNN correspondent was standing at the edge of a forest in some Louisiana town called Leesville. "Leesville is about three hours from Shreveport," she informed her viewers. "So it's a good deal away from those large areas of debris."

In other words: "I'm so far from this story I could be at a disco in Queens but there's a camera on so I'm gonna fill the time."

Welcome to Mourning TV.

As the country absorbed the body blow of the fallen Columbia, TV sprang into action with its usual post-tragedy efficiency. Got the bugles playing a dirge? Check. Got the anchors looking sad yet hopeful? Check. Got that footage of the explosion so we can run it all day, every 2.6 minutes? Let's roll!

The problem with such copious coverage is that after we have been informed of exactly what happened, how it happened and the extraordinary seven people it happened to - there are still another 23 hours to fill.

That's when TV starts reporting on the most tangential of story lines and slips from reverent to ridiculous.

The CNN lady stuck in Leesville pointed to the woods behind her and hinted that there just might be some debris in there. "NASA is saying small towns like this could be just as important as big towns," she reported, as if everyone in the country - including her - still had an equal chance to win the big scavenger hunt.

Unfortunately, she continued, the only people who really know the woods are the hunters - "but today was the last day of the hunting season!"

So what was she trying to say? That they can't go back in without their guns to look around?

Not that it really mattered, because her babbling was just one of a million fraudulent attempts by too many on TV to ramp up this story's emotional impact. Anyone staying glued to the set ran the risk of seriously jumbled emotions: sadness, awe, respect, boredom, fear and déjà vu.

Yes, what happened to the Columbia was a tragedy. But by the time you have seen it for the 239th time, you start to wonder - is this tragedy really so bad? Is it as bad as the Challenger? The World Trade Center? The sniper? And why are you even thinking this way? It's because once a story becomes an all-day, nothing-else-is-happening phenom, it almost begs to be compared with the others in that category.

To me, however, the saddest story of the past few days was not the shuttle disaster but the four teens who vanished off City Island. Those boys apparently died cold, in the dark, knowing that they were sinking. They were not on any noble mission. They were just kids.

When their skiff was discovered Saturday, my reaction was more wobbly-kneed than when I heard about the Columbia - no doubt because I empathized with their parents. Plain old New Yorkers with plain old teenagers, now they had more plain proof that their boys were never coming home.

But, of course, it is the shuttle and not a million other everyday tragedies that will dominate the airwaves for the week to come.

Real life and TV are at odds. TV says that death is more devastating when it happens in the sky.

But in real life, tragedy is tragedy.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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