The Breakfast Table

Coffee and Laptops

Good morning Ruth. It’s probably worth mentioning to readers that–in keeping with the spirit of the electronic age–you and I have never actually met in person outside of a television set. We’re virtual acquaintances.

And this is going to be a morning of virtual reality. Perhaps we should retitle this column, The Breakfast Desk. I’m travelling this week into regions where the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are not sold, to the tiny town of Wellington, Ontario, and so I’m not really reading any non-Canadian newspapers–I’m visiting their websites. This morning, I’ve surfed past the Times, the Washington Post, and the Washington Times, and thence to the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Nation from Nairobi.

It seems horrible to comment on the press coverage of an outrage like the bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa. Grief for the dead and anger against their murderers should be more than enough to occupy the mind. And yet, this horrible thing is exactly what I’m going to do. Odd business, journalism.

Remember Marshall McLuhan’s old division between “cool” and “hot” mediums? Television being cool; radio hot; etc. Well the Internet is the coolest medium of them all. As you flip from one article to another within a site, then bounce from that site to the next, it becomes almost impossible to sustain any emotional engagement in a story, even one as heart-rending as a terrorist bomb attack. Perhaps it’s to counteract this emotional distancing that news organizations have begun running such grisly photographs after disasters like this. Am I wrong in remembering that 20 years ago, newspapers never ran close-up pictures of dead bodies? (You’d see the most gruesome of these photos pinned up in newsrooms of course, but not in print.) But over the past half-decade, you suddenly see them even in reticent papers, like the Times, which this morning depicted a dead woman whose bloodied arm was hanging down from a stretcher. (One Canadian paper ran a close-up photograph of the mangled bodies of two African women being moved in a wheelbarrow.)

I suppose that jolts us emotionally and compensates for the distancing of the web. But even aside from my sense of loss that one more of the good old inhibitions and taboos has crumbled, I find these pictures shocking. Jewish law forbids doing anything to treat a dead body as an inanimate object. You’re not even permitted to pass things over a body. It must be respected as if it were still the person it used to be. I think our news directors might benefit from a little rabbinic instruction.