The media received a lot of criticism in 2018, some deserved, some not. The intricate weave of the warp and the woof of the media fabric was clearest to me in a story I read in November.
It happened, ironically, in a town called Paradise, California, a town largely inhabited by retirees. What became known as the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history, spread fast for miles, leaving neighborhoods of Paradise looking like tic-tac-toe boards of simply contingent lot lines, with the houses levelled.
All media were involved in covering this horrific loss of life, which eventually involved bone-sniffing dogs, as well: TV networks and local stations with helicopters; cellphone networks and laptops practically overloaded; radio, newspapers and magazines; and social media blazing for days in real blazes.
Then, amid all of that high-tech, one guy named John Warner showed up on the scene with a stack of simple ink-on-paper flyers.
Now, the simplest, most ancient form of communication besides talking is writing. Often attributed to the Egyptians and the Babylonian King Hammurabi, writing began as etchings on stone tablets. Jumping way forward, the invention of paper followed, and movable type in the Middle Ages allowed printing for distribution. That led to books and newspapers, an early beginning of what would become mass communication.
Yet, in 2018, a simple paper flyer made at home, with only the technology of a copier, reunited Warner, a desperate 46-year-old grandson, with his 96-year-old grandparents during a fire raging for miles. He simply walked into a news conference during which a local sheriff, already bereaved, had named himself “your coroner.” After politely waiting until the end of the conference, Warner showed the sheriff his stack. The sheriff kindly noticed, but, overwhelmed with responsibilities, could not help.
But a local TV reporter did. Within the TV savviness of 2018, the grandson agreed to do an on-camera interview, showing his flyer in front of his face, repeating his cell number and begging for help. Social media exuded immediate empathy, reaching a woman from a church shelter who was attuned and also watching TV. She called Warner’s cellphone to tell the grandson his grandparents were safe. Warner rushed to the shelter and found Faye and Anne Sherman, his grandparents, sitting next to each other on a cot.
At the last moment before their home burned, the Shermans had escaped in their truck. Faye Sherman, almost blind, had Anne Sherman acting as his eyes. At 15 mph, they drove for five hours, finally reaching safety in an IHOP parking lot. At daybreak, the couple found the church shelter. When the family was reunited, Faye Sherman was still wearing his favorite hat, adorned with the word “Veteran.”
The Shermans had no cellphone. Faye Sherman said he didn’t “get” technology. But his grandson did and used it, incorporating the most ancient forms of communication. He wrote. He talked. TV transmitted it. Social media helped to inform the church. The church called on a cellphone. I read about it all in a national newspaper a few days later.
There is never an accurate possibility of underestimating the human spirit. People will fight for loved ones, for life. When we wonder about the worth, aims or failings of the media, let us remember they are not a monolith, but rather, each medium and its representatives are individual cogs in a huge wheel history has blessed us with. None is perfect. Some employed agents have surly or egotistical goals.
But may I suggest that as we enter 2019, we remember Warner and the Shermans? May we consider how fortunate we are to have so many forms of communication that can be so useful to us? Might we just be thankful for a moment amid all the noise? Vigilant, as always, absolutely. As Americans we always hold that responsibility.
Grateful, ever, for the chance. [LN dingbat]