Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Greatest Non-Story Ever Told

What the hell is wrong with the Washington Post these days? I swear that paper is turning into a bunch of hacks! First we had Ruth Marcus' patronizing and naive take on the new TSA regulations "Don't touch my junk? Grow up, America."1 And now we have Ian Shapira's piece (of crap), "Telling a mother's story through her Facebook status updates."2

While Marcus' op-ed is offensive, because she is utterly dismissive of the public outcry over our government's violation of our Fourth Amendment rights, the Shapira piece sinks even lower, because it literally takes aim at the craft of journalism. It is, quite simply, one of the most ridiculous excuses for "writing" that I've read lately. It's certainly not news, and it falls so short of analysis that I can only assume he's having sex with his editor (and he must be really, really good). Otherwise, how else could this guy get his "work" (I'm taking liberties with the term) published in a national forum like the Post?

Now don't get me wrong, the circumstances unveiled via Shana Greatman Swers Facebook postings are tragic, and I certainly do not question the depth of her family's loss. Reading her thread reduced me to tears, and I challenge anyone to get through it without having a similar reaction. But to be brutally honest, there was nothing particularly special about this woman, or her family. Why were they singled out for national attention, when plenty of human tragedies unfold each day in cancer wards, domestic violence shelters, refugee camps, foster homes and other places where people go when there's nowhere else to turn for help?

Unfortunately the answer is simply that Ms. Swers' Facebook page was linked to Mr. Shapira's. He literally stumbled across her untimely death via his wife's Facebook news feed, decided to copy and past her status updates with a few annotations, and call it an article. The result being that Ms. Swers' story was catapulted to the national stage in one of the most crass examples of how "who you know" can make you famous.

Probably the saddest thing about this piece is that Shapira missed a terrific opportunity to use Ms. Swers' story as a platform to talk about a variety of larger issues, not the least of which being the disease which struck her down at such a young age. For those who can't stomach the read, Swers passed away roughly one month after the birth of her son from peripartum cardiomyopathy. As someone who just had a baby six months ago, I can relate to how frightening this is, and was surprised that I knew virtually nothing about the disease. I may have seen it mentioned somewhere in my various pregnancy books, but when I learned that it occurs in one out of every 1,300 - 4,000 deliveries, and is most common after age 30, I thought: "Holy cow! Why didn't anybody tell me about this one?!!"

Pregnant women are bombarded with information about what to eat, which activities to avoid, and the various risk factors for everything from drinking coffee and eating Brie to sitting in hot water for too long. Yet, this not-so-rare disease was relegated to the back burner. And why is that? Well, don't hold your breath for Mr. Shapira to tell you. He goes no deeper that to provide a link to the NIH website, as I have also done.

And if women's health is just not Shapira's cup of tea? Well, supposedly he specializes in covering the impact of technology on social communications. So I ask: how the hell did he miss this golden opportunity to explore the role of social media in the grieving process? I've often wondered what happens to a person's Facebook, Twitter, eBay, email, blog, and other online accounts after they die. Do the survivors simply delete the accounts, or leave them up as a memorial to the deceased? What if the next-of-kin doesn't have the password? Can a grieving relative have the accounts removed from the public Internet, but preserve the data, so as to sift through the digital effects of the departed's online life once the initial shock and pain of loss have lessened? Surely there is a larger story here about how Facebook impacts the grieving process - a story that might actually benefit the bereaved by giving them some anecdotes and concrete advice about how to go about handling or dismantling their loved ones' online persona.

Unfortunately for us, Mr. Shapira decided not to dig any deeper. That he then felt justified in participating in a self-congratulatory Q&A session about how he "wrote" (again taking liberties with word choice) the piece is beyond appalling to me. He seems to think what he's done is so cutting edge, but really it's just a copy and paste job. As someone who once aspired to enter the field of journalism, I can only say that Ian Shapira is proof-positive that talent plays a minimal role in the hiring process.