Why Does the News Have to Make Everybody and His Dog out to Be a Hero?

Is there a way to be quoted in a natural disaster "act of God" story and not come out looking like this?
Is there a way to be quoted in a natural disaster "act of God" story and not come out looking like this?

A story in The New York Times yesterday about New York's only Ebola patient and how he doesn't want to be a hero got me thinking about hero narratives in the news. For every flood, fire, earthquake, mudslide and measles outbreak, there must be a hero.

Dr. Craig Spencer caught Ebola last year while treating Ebola victims in the West African nation of Guinea. On October 23 of last year after returning to New York he entered Bellevue Hospital and was diagnosed with Ebola. He has written an essay for the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, out two days ago, in which he writes: "I was labeled a fraud, a hipster, and a hero. The truth is I am none of those things. I'm just someone who answered a call for help and was lucky enough to survive."

I guess you could argue that he's not only claiming not to be a hero. He's claiming not to be those other things, too. Instead, he says in the essay, he's a dude who went to Guinea and caught Ebola. I think I get what he means.

I have been thinking about larger than life personas imposed on people by the news business -- sort of like those Halloween Superman costumes with the Styrofoam padded pectoral muscles -- ever since I heard a witty and wonderful monologue by April Swartz-Larson, a suburban kid who is lesbian and was crowned homecoming queen last year at McKinney High School. She spoke at the Oral Fixation series at the Wyly Theater last December.

I wish I had taken notes, but I was there for fun. She talked about how her parents are cool accepting people who love her, how her friends at McKinney High, gay and straight, are cool, too, so, really, for her and her generation, being gay is not some huge deal. She said she thought some kids might have voted for her for homecoming queen as sort of a goof but a lot of kids just like her. And she's very likable.

But being gay and getting elected homecoming queen in Texas made her a national news story. All of a sudden a bunch of adult strangers were calling her up or shoving microphones in her face asking her important-sounding head-nodding questions (reporter nods yes vigorously to convey proper response while saying, "Wouldn't you say that you are a hero to gay and lesbian children everywhere?" )

She said she felt called upon to give back important-sounding answers. At one point she was staying up nights practicing important-sounding answers, not at all sure they reflected her real feelings which might have been summed up better as, "Sorta forgotten about that already."

She's a smart nice young woman with not a bit of adolescent snark. When she was invited to meet the members of the Turtle Creek Chorale, a 35-year-old gay and lesbian musical group, she said she realized then that issues of persecution and exclusion had loomed much larger in the lives of older gay people than in her own life and that her ability to be a normal happy high school kid was therefore more striking to them than perhaps to her. It was a gracious note to end a very funny talk.

But it was more than just funny for me, because I've been a reporter all my life, and I wonder about the effect we have on reality. You know, in quantum physics, they wonder if the mere observation of electrons by scientists causes them to behave differently. But I wonder what would happen if, instead of just somber scientists in white lab coats, the electrons were observed by TV reporters nodding their heads yes and saying, "Wouldn't you say that you are a hero to electrons everywhere?" I doubt if that universe would even be parallel.

I know this much. It's no good telling any reporter, print or TV, that you are not a hero if the reporter is already nodding his or her head yes at you. All you accomplish then is getting bumped up a notch to the next even more inescapable news chokehold - reluctant hero.

Pity the man in Regina, Canada, who became a "reluctant hero" for digging another person's car out of the snow. Astronaut Neil Armstrong turned himself into a virtual Rushmore of reluctant heroism by trying to duck it all his life.

It's a tricky business. For some people modesty seems only to invite invidious comparison between their act of alleged heroism and what the reporter takes for their extremely unprepossessing character beforehand. Then they get bumped down two notches to "modest hero," which means they were never good for all that much before impulsively dashing into a burning building. How insulting.

And then, of course, there are the heroes who protest too much, like the man who wrote an essay for Slate a couple years ago claiming he had been called a hero for sleeping next to an infant who urinated in his bed. I'd need to see some documentation on that.

A columnist for The Elgin-Courier News in Illinois offered readers this month a list of "five modest heroes worth loving on a Valentine's Day weekend," including one volunteer fire rescuer who rescued a person who subsequently died, a college student (presumably the writer) who used a trick to ask a librarian out on a date in 1950 and subsequently married her, a retired judge who has written plays based on ethical questions for local theater, and a lady in her late 90s who, when still in her 80s, "went to the Cinema 12 movie theater in Carpentersville several times a week."

Wait, you say. Isn't that only four? Yeah, that's what I thought, too. I went back and re-read the fine print. The fifth hero was a person who watched the fire rescuer run in and grab the person who died.

I wouldn't mind the hero narrative on its own so much if it didn't get woven into the no-truly-bad-news narrative, especially on TV, especially for events blamed on the deity. If there is a flood or a hurricane, then the newscast must end with a modest hero already rebuilding. If an elementary school bus plunges off a mountain in a blizzard in Montana, then the newscast must end with one incredibly brave little girl who vows to go on, even if it looks from the video an awful lot like she may be asking to go to the bathroom.

Why can't something truly terrible be just that? If we really think God is behind these events, is it right to meddle with his work? The no-bad-news interpretation of all disasters feels presumptuous. If that's all he meant, he could find a more felicitous way to say it.

My own doubt about the news is this: off the job, just walking around, life feels just sort of regular most of the time, not at all extraordinary, and if by some terrible mischance a piano should fall out of a building on my head, and if I should somehow live through it, I don't get how that makes me a hero. I don't know about your life, but mine is not a Spielberg movie.

By the way, I don't think about stuff like that a lot -- the piano -- except that sometimes I try to remember if it does ever happen to start nodding no immediately.

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