Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Unusual News

It is the unusual that often gets top billing on the news cycle, certainly the unusual and horrible. That is why the news gives so much coverage to gruesome murders, particularly if they are committed by some unlikely individual and if the circumstances tug on the strings to our deepest myths. Hence the attention given to the types of cases where women murder children or each other in awful ways.

That these cases are rare gets forgotten, though. Yesterday someone worried about the safety of pregnant women because of the two recent cases having to do with deranged attacks against the women (one of whom died) by other women. What this person didn't seem to understand was that he most likely has heard about all such cases happening in this country, that the danger of something similar happening to other pregnant women was vanishingly small and that when pregnant women are murdered it is almost always by their partners.

Most violence is not newsworthy. If the perpetrator belongs to the group of the usual perpetrators and the victim to the group of usual victims the story will be placed on page eighteen of newspapers and might get a short mention on the television news. Remember Susan Smith, the woman who drowned her children? Only a month or so after the trial I saw an almost identical case reported in the New York Times, except that it was the father of the children who let them drown by releasing the handbrake in his car and by pushing the car into deep waters. That story was a tiny piece of news deep inside the paper.

There is a feminist point to such distinctions, too. Focusing on violent mothers lets the social conservatives fume about the dissolution of all civilization, even if the cases in reality are very rare. Somehow identical murders committed by violent fathers don't provide the same fodder for those who wish to support traditions.