Oft-criticized college students one-up cable’s best

WASHINGTON — Let’s face it, baby boomers often express anxiety about the younger generation. We did a lot of crazy things in our day, but we also marched against the war in Vietnam, we stood up for civil rights and women’s rights. We demanded change. We tried to make a difference.

You’ve heard our complaints: “These kids lack our social conscience. …They are so coddled, so indulged, so spoiled. ….They have no idea how lucky they are. … They just seem so darn young.”

But in recent weeks, college students from Rutgers University, Duke University and now Virginia Tech displayed a level of common sense and dignity that not only reassured, but also exposed the shallow shortcomings of our mass communication culture.

The difference between my own college years and now is instant communication. The Internet, instant messaging, cell phones and non-stop cable news coverage are the new norm.

The final denouement of the Duke lacrosse scandal, the relentless coverage of Don Imus and his nasty wisecrack, and then the horror and tragedy of mass death at Virginia Tech put cable news on the spot. Sadly, cable did not rise to its promise.

These so-called professional journalists panicked. Driven by the need to “hook” the audience and the fierce competition, cable anchors hyped every fragment of every detail, jumped to premature conclusions and pressed for more without digesting what happened. They exhibited all the “instant gratification” allegations we make about the next generation.

At the moment that parents were being informed by officials that their children had died, CNN’s Paula Zahn pressed a young survivor to tell her who he blamed for the tragedy.

In the midst of this breathless and mindless rush to judgment, the Virginia Tech students stood out as the dispassionate, measured, thoughtful and accurate reporters of fact.

These “kids” refused to rise to the bait being dangled by anchors insistently asking “aren’t you angry?” and instead defended the decisions made by their university administrators, offered context and perspective on the nature of life on their campus and kept their remarks focused on what truly mattered, the sudden and tragic loss of their colleagues, professors and friends.

Just a week before, cable news and others jumped all over a deserving Imus while the Rutgers basketball players — the targets of his vile quips — showed calm, thoughtfulness, intelligence and waited until they met with him before passing final judgment.

By the time the victims were given that chance to say what they thought, the media and those who use the media had already claimed their victim. Those bright talented athletes were almost beside the point.

The three young Duke lacrosse players also showed maturity after a year of being falsely accused, tried and convicted in the media and by a rogue prosecutor of a crime not only did they not commit, but a crime that didn’t happen.

They did not lash out at the woman who falsely accused them or the prosecutor whose ambition tattered their reputations. Would that the provocative cable news interviewers had shown a fraction of their calm balance.

No explanation exists for what happened at Virginia Tech although there will be endless analysis in the days ahead and premature speculation before the police ever finish their investigation.

If past is prologue, we know the cable stars will not take a moment to digest, endure, absorb and accept what aspired before casting aspersions and delivering final edicts.

Ever since CNN’s Anderson Cooper went to New Orleans and expressed his outrage over the plodding initial relief effort to Hurricane Katrina — deserved, no doubt, by the government — we have a new “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” attitude from our “news” casters. Straight out of Hollywood’s “Network” — crazed broadcasters who tell us what the news should be, not what the news is.

Can’t we have a moment to actually feel our feelings before some blow-dried cable reporter or anchor explains them to us?

Or maybe we should just look to the young people. They tell us what’s really happening. Maybe the future does look good.



B. Jay Cooper is deputy managing director of APCO Worldwide, a communications and public affairs firm in Washington.

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