Sandra Kobrin

(WOMENSENEWS)–A couple of news cycles ago–like two weeks–I was drowning in the details of an alleged affair between N.Y. Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez and pop icon Madonna and the latest chapter in Christie Brinkley’s million-dollar divorce from the guy who seems one step above a pedophile.

Whatever news program I turned on, or news site I browsed, celebrity divorces seemed to be the big story, impossible to avoid. I decided to check whether these stories were as pervasive as they seemed.

I Googled Madonna and A-Rod and found over 4,000 related articles. For Christie Brinkley, over a thousand.

As a divorce survivor myself, I flinch for anyone going through a similar ordeal. That extends to women I’ll never know, such as Christie and Cynthia Rodriguez, A-Rod’s wife, who will get plenty of compensation for their hardships.

But halfway through the automatic impulse to sympathize, I had to catch myself. Wait, I’d been looking for news, not divorce reflux.

This week I’m emerging from a similar media bombardment about the brawl in the WNBA.

There are almost 1,600 articles online about the same 2.5 minutes of film showing hot-headed WNBA athletes pushing and shoving and a male coach getting into the action as well.

Brawling Headlines

Some of the prize headlines: “Cat Fight Stirs Up Controversy,” Cay Compass, Cayman Islands; “WNBA–Bad Girls Mind Set. . .Pierson and Parker a Volatile Mix,” ESPN; “Girl Fight: WNBA’s Stars get into On-Court Brawl,” Cleveland Leader; “Women Who Can Dunk and Duel,” New York Times. And my favorite: “Chick Fight,”

Give me a break.

Athletes fight all the time. Their work is physically tense. It’s all about winning and losing and asking your muscles to perform on par with your brain. Pushing and shoving happens. Go to a male hockey game sometime and watch the completely legal, perhaps even artificial, fistfights.

Some news providers exercised relative restraint. The Wall Street Journal put it into the “stuff happens” category.

So did CBS Sportsline columnist Ray Ratto. “Sport has plenty more to worry about than the occasional temperfest, and this brawl didn’t go into the stands, produce felonies or require police intervention,” he wrote in his online column. “And given that this was either the first brawl in WNBA history or damned close to it, we can also see it as the aberration that it was.”

Was the media trying to make the women look bad by replaying the “catfight” again and again? Maybe.

At the very least it was diverting and distracting us from the widespread and serious pressures that women are struggling under every day; a problem that Herb Simon reflected on back in 1971. “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients,” said Simon, an influential social scientist. “Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Junk Displaces Reality

I get it. When junk information fills my head, I miss the real news.

I know I could change the channel, cover the headlines on my e-mail browser with one hand while typing with the other and keep my mouse off suspect news sites. But that wouldn’t change the fact that hundreds of thousands–maybe millions–of other Americans are being mesmerized by this type of news media.

Maybe these stories of divorce and “cat fights” are meant to distract us from what this week’s Economist magazine calls, on its cover, an “Unhappy America.”

Right. There’s a war going on that’s killing U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens every day.

Gas is nearing five bucks a gallon. The dollar is weak. The housing market is diving.

On Friday members of Congress received a briefing on the “female face of foreclosure.” Did anyone hear much about that? I thought not.

Barbara Ehrenreich helps shed light on that problem with a July 29 post on the Huffington Post about the human toll the housing crisis is inflicting on a culture “where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth.” Her article opens with the death of Carlene Balderrama, a woman in Taunton, Mass., who killed herself last week, a few hours before her mortgage company, PHH Mortgage Corporation, was to auction off her home.

Amid the heavy pulse of trivial media it’s also easy to miss news reports like the one from the Washington Times on Tuesday about Senate Republicans blocking an aid package to help the mostly female ranks of seniors and low-income workers pay for the rising costs of heating and cooling their homes. The paper said the Republicans were “protesting” the Democrats’ failure to schedule bills to increase domestic oil drilling.

Beyond our own troubled borders we can also consider–if we try hard enough–on the special burdens imposed on women by widespread food shortages. Many women–cooks who typically only eat after every other member of the family has been fed–are suffering the worst hunger pangs.

Under-Reported, Chronic Conditions

In short, there is no shortage of serious stories about women, which should make us all wonder why we’re so focused on celebrity divorces and b-ball scuffles.

On the other side of the Atlantic a judge in England is cracking down on the kind of salacious scandal mongering that distracts us from the basic facts of our lives.

In a ruling last week he awarded damages and legal costs to Max Mosley, the overseer of Grand Prix racing in Europe because a tabloid, News of the World, published an article alleging he participated in a sadomasochistic orgy with a Nazi theme.

“There was no public interest or other justification for the clandestine recording, for the publication of the resulting information and still photographs, or for the placing of the video extracts on the News of the World Web site, all of this on a massive scale,” the judge said.

Unless a law is violated, in other words, private lives should be left private. As a member of the press I can hardly rejoice at the chill this might cast over newsgathering. But at the same time, I can’t help celebrating the sight of the so-called news business being reprimanded for its prurient excess.

As for Hollywood. Instead of dramatizing any serious situations, the heroes of the big screen this summer are comic book heroes decked out in special effects. Batman, Iron Man, Hulk, Hancock. Speed Racer, Indiana Jones, Hellboy.

On TV, meanwhile, it’s a wasteland of reality-TV programs starring Tila Tequila, Flava Flav and Donald Trump.

I know it’s summer, the typically silly seasons for news. But this is an election year with a lot at stake. The country is confronting serious challenges that good solid journalism could help us all meet.

I don’t need “news” that’s not newsworthy, films about super heroes and alien invaders, and “reality” TV that seems intent on sapping my sense of any meaningful reality.

I need an escape from escapism.

Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles writer and columnist.

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