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Why Are We in Media Hell?

One of my theories about the classic gangster television series The Sopranos is that creator David Chase recognized an important truth about the structure of TV storytelling. In normal stories, a protagonist is placed in a situation that uniquely challenges his character so that in traveling through the arc of the story he is transformed in comic or tragic ways. But in a TV series, the hero's character is never really transformed — because otherwise the series would end — and he is doomed to repeat the same actions over and over without surcease. In short, he is in Hell, like the sinners in Dante's Inferno who must repeat the same actions forever. Or like Tony Soprano.

Nowadays, watching the news, and reading social media, I feel a bit like Tony Soprano myself. A story breaks — a prominent person dies or there's a mass shooting, for instance — and the exact same reactions appear on news media discussion panels and social media as the last time such a story occurred. Then these reactions fade away as we grow weary of hearing about the event. Then a similar event occurs and we all become embroiled in the exact same conversation. We never learn. We never change. We just do it again and again and again.

So, for instance, Senator John McCain dies. For the record, the man was a heroic patriot with whom I often disagreed. At such a moment, out of respect for those who knew and loved him, with a due awe for that mortal end which reminds me of our shared humanity and with the understanding that he now stands before the perfect Judge who needs no help from me, I find it right and proper to put all political considerations aside and wish the man well on the Great Journey. Either pay tribute, say Rest in Peace, or keep your mouth shut. Nothing else is required.

And this is how we all behave — for about five minutes. By the sixth minute, however, the reactions on the news channels and social networks have turned predictably vicious. Some can't get out of their own heads long enough to silence their political snarling. Others use their tributes to McCain to make nasty comparisons to the living. Still others start attacking the way some paid their respects. It's like watching people pull the man's body apart and beat each other over the head with his limbs.

Likewise with a shooting like the one in Jacksonville, Florida. We get a few minutes of thoughts and prayers (a completely appropriate response to a tragic situation over which you have no control and in which you had no involvement). Then the screaming starts over the Second Amendment. The nation's media can't even give the families of the dead one lousy day to grieve in peace before they are at each other's throats.