op-ed

Curing lazy, fearful news

Alex Beehler Contributor
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Earlier this week, the all-news radio stations in Metropolitan Washington were giving frequent flash bulletins about the “gun situation” at the city’s National Cathedral. From the initial reports, the “developing story” had political drama for a cathedral setting last reached in Victor Hugo’s epic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The Cathedral Schools—Saint Albans (boys) and National Cathedral (girls) were “locked down” for 90 minutes until calm was restored. Even Sidwell Friends middle school, a mile away from the alleged incident was” locked down” as well, out safety for the president’s daughter who attends the school’s sixth grade.

Throughout the day, breathless news updates revealed “no shots had been fired,” and “no one is hurt,” and eventually that “everything was back to normal.” In fact, subsequent reports revealed purportedly that a St. Albans senior student had a BB gun in the car he drove to school, briefly showed it to a fellow student in the school’s parking lot, and then placed it on the back seat and locked his car. An eyewitness saw this activity and reported it to the school authorities. Both students were then turned in to the police.

Set aside the issue of whether three schools, one a mile away from the alleged incident, should have been placed in institutional paralysis for up to an hour and a half of the school day; that is worth a separate post to examine, complete with thorough review of the trauma and flood of crisis counseling sessions with students too stricken to face further studies. This post addresses the lazy, fearful news reporting that permeates major media and offers a cure.

It is easy to surmise why such a non-event dominated the city’s air waves most of the day. First, our national capital’s normal top newsmakers, the President and Congress, were out of town. Second, the alleged incident occurred at one of the highest positions in Washington, literally, as well as socially, at the locale of one of the most prestigious houses of worship and three of the most prestigious private schools. Coincidentally, it also was about a mile away from the studio of one of the all-news stations, logistically easy coverage. Third, the story involved a gun on school property, a generic media hot topic for non-intercity schools since the Columbine High School shooting in the late 1990’s. Fourth, it fed on base human obsessions with fear, insecurity and uncertainty.

However, for those who seek news that is informative and insightful at a minimum and, if possible, inspirational, this news item and related coverage failed to make the grade. There are many uplifting events that deserve attention from major media and are readily accessible from the Internet, yet do not receive mention. For instance, earlier this week, American Forces Press Service, dateline Washington, reported on the incredible “can-do” spirit of Army Lt. Col. Ralph Riddle, commander of the 832nd Transportation Battalion, who after the devastating earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, immediately requested permission from his commanding officer to transport his unit, trained to conduct seaport operations, to Port-au-Prince. On his own initiative, Riddle reasoned that when the earthquake struck, the U.S. Southern Command would have more pressing demands than its planned military exercise, which in turn would free up the utility landing craft (LCUs) on loan to Southern Command for the exercise.

Upon receiving permission to sail to Haiti, Riddle and his team of 16 unit members, augmented by commercial stevedores and their equipment, launched the LCUs from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and arrived in Port-au-Prince hundreds of miles and three days later. The team, which commenced port repairs to accommodate ships with humanitarian aid immediately used the LCUs to shuttle out to arriving cargo ships and deliver their goods ashore.

For their Herculean work in Haiti over the last three months, Transcom, including Riddle and his unit, last week were presented the prestigious Joint Meritorious Unit Award personally by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Stories like that of Ralph Riddle, a volunteer in exemplary, self-initiated service to his country and beyond, are the perfect cure for slow news days. They might even prove educationally beneficial and inspirational for those students unexpectedly confined before their personal computers for extended time due to emergency lock-downs.

Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.