Last Thursday, a famous young figure skater was clubbed in the leg by an unknown attacker.
Less than an hour after it happened, my phone rang. It was a TV network, asking me for details.
An hour after that, “The Today Show” called, seeking to book the skater and asking if I would appear with her, to discuss violence against athletes.
By evening, at least two dozen radio stations had called, wanting me to give some “expert analysis” of this drama.
By the next day, “A Current Affair” was on the phone, asking me to go on camera with an opinion on the attack.
And I wasn’t even involved! I wasn’t even there! So you can only imagine who Nancy Kerrigan, her coach, her parents, and her friends were hearing from.
Newspapers across America trumpeted the story. TV newscasts went live from Detroit. ABC paid a cameraman $50,000 for footage — not of the assault, but of Kerrigan crying and writhing in pain afterward, a pretty young woman taken down by a fiend.
To be honest, the whole thing makes me wonder which is sicker: this type of assault, or our fascination with it?
Or maybe the two are intertwined. After all, who commits attacks like these? Usually some sick loner, who has a demented vision of the world, and fixates on doing one thing to try to make his mark.
And here we are building his perfect stage. All the ingredients
Now, obviously, what happened to Kerrigan was tragic and compelling. That it happened the day before her event at the championships, and was such a mystery — no one knew the attacker, his motivation, or where he escaped — made it even more intriguing to our movie-mentality culture.
So did the fact that a similar crime had happened to another female athlete recently (Monica Seles, who was attacked last spring at a tennis match). This made for a neat package — and the media loves to package. Two cases makes a category. Three makes a trend. Four, an epidemic.
So we were all over this — and it was news, I am not denying that. But I can’t help wondering if our rush to leap on certain attention-grabbing stories doesn’t ultimately contribute to them happening again.
After all, it is not like this country is short on tragedy. This past week alone, how many children do you think were killed playing with their parents’ guns? How many innocent teenagers were caught in drug war crossfire? How many innocent men and women lost their lives in car accidents with fleeing criminals?
More than you know. None that you can name. All tragic. All innocent victims. And all ignored, except perhaps in the small print of a local newspaper. Maybe we’ve become inured to such crimes. Or maybe, because they don’t involve the rich and famous, they are of less interest to big-time news organizations.
ABC’s $50,000 for footage of Kerrigan crying could have sent a few inner-city kids to college, or employed several men for a year, or fed a shelter’s worth of the homeless — all of which might have done something to nip the bud of another potential celebrity stalker.
Instead, ABC paid for pictures of a famous woman crying, which they knew would get good ratings.
Now, who’s demented? Rewarding coverage
When John Hinckley tried to kill Ronald Reagan, he did it, he said, to impress movie star Jodie Foster. When Gunther Parrshe attacked Monica Seles, he did it, he said, because of his love for Steffi Graf. Attacking famous people to impress famous people.
Who knows what this lunatic had in mind when he hit Kerrigan near the knee? Was he in love with a rival? Did he feel spurned because Kerrigan didn’t answer one of his fan letters?
Who knows? But whoever he is, and wherever he is, he can see the fuss he has caused. Police are searching through videotapes. They have contacted authorities across the country. The FBI is involved. Never mind that Detroit
— and any other large city — is full of people who have been assaulted by disappearing men, and have been told to go home and be grateful they weren’t hurt worse. Their cases are quickly forgotten.
But this one — well, to any sick minds out there, it’s assurance that a fantasy crime against a famous person will get them plenty of attention. It’s the function of a culture that puts celebrity next to godliness.
What happened to Kerrigan was terrible, shocking and disturbing, and no one will argue her place on an Olympic team. She handled herself with composure and dignity and even managed, through a shaky voice, to smile and say, “I’ve been on the news every half hour. People who didn’t know me before probably know me now.”
There’s something worrisome about that, too. The bigger this story gets, the more likely we haven’t seen the last of its type. Sadly, for all we know, this is just the beginning.