Steilacoom, Washington, the small town in which he was raised, honored him with a motorcycle escort and town flags flown at half-staff. Mrs. Gillis said she was grateful for the compassion and support of the residents. But she wondered aloud why the media is, in general, silent concerning our service men and women in harm’s way. That’s a good question.
I’m sure that part of the answer is that celebrity coverage is so easy. Both those figures being profiled and those providing the coverage appreciate their positions as partners in competitive business. The spotlight is win-win for the celebrity and for the media. Does the media set the agenda for what we see and hear, or are they responding to our preferences? That’s a subject for another day.
But regardless of who is driving the coverage, it is clear that there is always a new story around the corner. And when a certain headline begins to age, the story is massaged and tweaked to highlight a new angle that will regain our attention. With television sound bites, talk-show interviews, print and internet articles, YouTube, and tell-all books penned by former employees, we can read about, watch, and discuss our favorite celeb lives and loves, triumphs and tragedies ad infinitum.
High-visibility public figures become familiar and we begin to identify with them. Somehow we convince ourselves that we really know these women and men. A false sense of intimacy builds, and we mourn their passing as though they were a member of the family. Certainly many of us have taken collective deep breaths as we were surprised and saddened by the passing of an actor, a writer, a sports legend. That person’s gifts and talents cannot be duplicated, so we all suffer a loss. But in a real sense, the extended coverage of the death of a mega-celebrity often becomes just another form of entertainment for people with an insatiable desire for intimate detail. And that’s sad, too.
Another part of the answer to Mrs. Gillis’ question may that coverage of the fallen takes us to places that many of us would rather not go. There’s no entertainment here. There is no massaging of the story, no snappy teaser for the interview that will follow the commercial break, no recasting the event to render it more palatable. We reflect on the real sacrifices being made on our behalf, and it is sobering, and uncomfortable, and hard.
Are the national media likely to shift away from coverage of celebrity stories? Probably not; there’s no business incentive to do so. Of course, local media sources can, and do, keep us informed. And in communities like ours, just like in Steilacoom, we come together to offer support and caring shoulders on which to lean. But Mrs. Gillis’ commentary caused me to broaden the question to include all of those with whom we live and work, along with those in the armed forces. There will always be teachers and preachers, health care professionals, civil servants and service workers, business managers and volunteers who won’t catch the attention of the media. So what do we do?
On our last Sunday ministering at our former church, the gospel choir sang James Cleveland’s “Give Me My Flowers” for us. In part the words are: “Give me my flowers while I yet live so I can see the beauty that they bring… Speak kind words to me while I can hear …” What a beautiful way for our church family to say thank-you; to let us know that our ministry there mattered.
So, I think that’s what we do. We honor those whom we love while they can still hear us. Not necessarily with dinners or awards, but with handshakes or hugs, notes of encouragement or thank-you when we meet . It is not a new idea, but it is true, and from time to time, perhaps it helps us to be reminded.