One Monday morning a few years ago, I was settling into my office cubicle when my co-worker Dave popped his head over the wall and shared some sad news.
“You hear that Billy Mays died over the weekend?”
“Really? No way!”
“Yep. They think it was a heart attack.”
“Wow,” I said, wondering if my father had heard about this. “That’s big news.”
“So, the Say-Hey Kid is no more.”
“The Say-Hey Kid,” I said. “That’s what they called him in his playing days.”
Dave laughed. “Not Willie Mays. Billy Mays.”
“Who the hell is Billy Mays?” I asked.
“You know, the guy on the Home Shopping Network. The OxiClean guy.”
I had no idea who Dave was talking about. I soon would, however, as the cable news networks and celebrity gossip shows reported on the death nonstop for the next several days. I learned that Billy Mays was a fast-talking, charismatic TV pitchman who worked his way up from selling cleaning products and even had his own reality show for a while. I still didn’t know why his death was especially important, other than inspiring this mildly tasteless joke:
First Guy: “Did you hear that Billy Mays died?”
Second Guy: “Why, no, I—”
First Guy: “—But wait! There’s more!”
A couple of recent news stories reminded me of Billy Mays and my cold indifference to his death. Last week, South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius was charged with murdering his girlfriend. And on Sunday, former country star Mindy McCready was found dead in an apparent suicide. My first reaction to both events was, “Gosh, that’s terrible.” My second reaction was, “Who are these people again?” I had never heard of either one of them.
Of course, thanks to electronic media, I know now that Nike has decided to drop Pistorius from its advertising campaign and that McCready once starred on “Celebrity Rehab.” I know that Pistorius’ girlfriend was a supermodel who spoke out against domestic abuse, and that McCready and her boyfriend both died this year, leaving behind a son who hasn’t even reached his first birthday. I should point out I learned all of this without actively watching or reading any of the news coverage. The awareness seeped into me as if it were part of the atmosphere–a sound byte about the disgraced Olympian from the TV in the next room; a headline about Dr. Drew’s reaction to the country star’s death at the top of Google News.
I don’t mean to make light of these two stories. Both are tragic beyond words. But I have a hard time understanding the intense coverage and hourly updates. Is this the kind of news people really care about and want to follow? Or are we trained to take an interest in these stories because the cable networks have been feeding us a steady diet of them for so long? How many viewers knew who Oscar Pistorius was a week ago?
The irony of the 24-hour news cycle is that there isn’t enough real news to fill the cycle. And who wants to be hit over the head all day with stories about budget shortfalls, unemployment, Afghanistan, gun violence and immigration reform? You know, the stuff that really matters and could make a difference in our lives? We want a diversion from all that, and what better way than to fill us up with murder mysteries, courtroom dramas and turbulent lives that allow us to say, “Well, at least I’m not that guy?” Doesn’t really matter if it’s O.J. Simpson or the jerk who slapped an 19-month-old child yesterday on a Delta Airlines flight.
Okay, so I admit to reading a CNN.com article about the guy slapping the toddler. We all have our weaknesses. And, like a late-night salesman hawking cleaning supplies, the news media will keep pitching until it has something our sleep-deprived craniums absolutely, positively cannot resist.