Wealth and its associated privileges afford much insulation and protection. However, it cannot safeguard against unexpected tragedy or death. Yet in the aftermath of the devastating Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka that have, to date, claimed 359 lives, the mainstream media has allocated a disproportionate amount of news coverage to the wealthiest victims. This subtly implies that rich lives matter more, or at least sell more newspapers and online advertising. At TQC, we find this troubling to say the least.
The day after the bombings, multiple news organizations highlighted the death of three of the four children of Danish billionaire Anders Hoch Polvson, who operates retail giant ASOS. Overnight, his story became - albeit indirectly – in part that a billionaire was not insulated from this act of terror. Of course, having to attend the funeral of ones’ own children under any circumstance is unfathomable. Our heavy hearts go out to, and we sympathize with, the Polvson family and all those affected by this senseless act. Unfortunately, the subtext of some media coverage implied that his loss was somehow greater because of his wealth. Mr. Povson’s story was not the only example of the mainstream press allocating an abundance of reporting resources on privileged persons affected by this terrorist attack.
There was considerable media focus on student Kieran Shafritz de Zoya, a fifth grader at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. The school’s alumni include the children of several Presidents. In his grief, the boy’s father spoke of how Kieran aspired to be a neuroscientist but those dreams ended when terrorism claimed his life. Other prominent victims included Sri Lankan celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne and a young relative of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. These were among the figures given notable mention in the press coverage. Indeed, the media seemed astonished that the affluent were among the victims.
Furthermore, and worth mentioning, is how in almost every terror attack whether it takes place in Europe, Africa, Sri Lanka or elsewhere, there are multiple stories about the number of foreign victims, even though the death toll of the domestic population is almost always higher (the death count of foreign nationals in Sri Lanka is 42). Are we to surmise that somehow these attacks would have been easier to process if they were limited to the local population? Or is it simply because media outlets must focus only on that which is relevant to its own audience abroad? Surely, such a tragic loss of life and on such a grand scale should resonate with all people of goodwill, regardless of where in the world they may be from.
There are various conclusions - some not mutually exclusive - that can be reached with regards to the media's obsession on those of privilege who did not survive. The less cynical view would suggest that the 1% are like the rest of us and as susceptible to calamity. A more skeptical stance - and for the record the one we argue is at least partially transpiring - is a deification of the wealthy, and highlighting their misfortune because ironically, that is where fortune in news is found.
The advent of reality television and social media has created both an egregious disconnect and blurred the lines between what is real life and what is immaterial gloss. The gloss, unfortunately is what continually captivates the public. Millions of reality TV fans vicariously live through these constructed “icons” in order to be closer to their highly curated illusion of reality. This creates a feedback loop where news organizations act more like reality TV producers in order to drive eyeballs to their respective sites, which of course enables them to reap more money from advertisers, which is imperative to their own financial security.
Most victims of this hideous attack were Sri Lankans of modest means. So, why not profile the accomplishments and dreams of a local child or the life of a common Sri Lanken resident; might not enough people care to read it? Perhaps the fear among media heads is that not enough people would click on that article, thereby reducing the amount of money a news organization could command from advertisers.
There is a growing leftist and, to some extent, centrist trend to vilify the wealthy. But in part because of reality television and social media the rich and famous are also icons. If they can’t avoid death by terror with all their millions if not billions, then who can?
The media often write about the inequities in America and the world, the yawning gap between rich and poor, and how the underclass in society are becoming increasingly marginalized. Yet, by focusing their energies on the most privileged victims of the attack in Sri Lanka, they are helping to facilitate what they often rail against in their reporting.
When the September 11, 2001 attacks took place, we lived perhaps in more empathetic times where the sense that wealth discriminated did not exist to the extent it does today. That the New York Times ran a list of the 9/11 victims and their bios every day until the list was complete is testament to that fact. We commend the NYT for doing this. Every life was given equal consideration. While any terrorist attack or tragedy is worth our heartfelt condolences, it is also worth noting that the Sri Lanka terrorist attack of 2019 was actually the worst, in terms of casualties, since 9/11. Every victim deserves respect. Every life lost, reverence.
As life can be an accident of birth, death can be an accident of place and time. Everybody who perished in Sri Lanka lost the opportunity to enjoy their life. At The Quintessential Centrist, we are unnerved that most of the mainstream press allocated most of their resources highlighting the death of only a select few privileged victims and too few resources highlighting the loss of almost everybody else.