Behind the scenes at the RKR column: What in the world were you doing, the peanut gallery asked, writing about Michael Vick and trying to defend him?
Glad you asked. And let me say right up front that I was wrong when I said that there is a little Michael Vick in most of us. I should not have written that, but let me explain how I got there.
Before Michael Vick’s dog days were much more than a glimmer in a newshound’s eye, I was thinking about the death of content in the mass media. Skimming the cable channels, surfing the web, and perusing the stories that were filling the pages of the big national newspapers and magazines, I thought we had finally reached a point at which there were simply more minutes of airtime and more column inches of editorial space than there were stories to fill them.
We journalists have thought this in the past, of course, and have been proven wrong. Within a year or so of People magazine’s debut and meteoric rise in the 1970s, the skeptics wondered what the weekly magazine would do when it ran out of celebrities to put on the cover. Not to worry, of course. Celebrities on the cover gave way to politicians and — better yet — dead celebrities. Jackie O was merely a candle to Diana’s flame. And then, with the advent of 24/7 cable television news shows and “reality” TV, came the alchemy of turning regular people into celebrities. All you needed was an occasional disaster (Pan Am Flight 103, TWA Flight 800, or 9/11) or a contrived disastrous circumstance (Survivor or American Idol).
But this summer I thought we had hit rock bottom when I saw the Animal Planet, reduced to filling its weekly appetite of 168 hours of airtime with prolonged views of salt water mixing with fresh water in a bay on the coast of Maine.
Realizing that I much preferred the thrill of the hunt on the Animal Planet, I began to wonder just how much higher my ground was than Michael Vick’s. He and his crowd get a kick, presumably, watching two dogs square off. Last week I lingered on the animal channel, pulse quickening as a herd of zebras nervously prepared to ford a Nigerian river. The first one in got taken out by the 20-foot crocodile. As the announcer calmy informed viewers, the match with the 500-pound zebra was so brutal and so equally matched that, when it was over, the crocodile was exhausted. Just as you or I would do after a fast swim, the beast rolled over on his back to catch his breath, while his dead prey floated hoofs up.
Of course this all happens in nature; what happens in the dog fighting cage is the calculated work of Vick and others of his ilk. The dogs are truly innocent victims.
Now we are getting closer to the truth. If Vick had been arrested for battering a girlfriend, there would have been no similar outrage — lots of people would have thought that the woman should have known better than to get involved with him. If Vick had grown up in wealth, it might have been different, too. His dogs would not have been bred to fight other dogs and his sport would have been fox hunting. Most civilized.
If Vick and his ilk had satisfied their thirst for combat by throwing themselves into the ring it would have been called boxing. In fact, as I surf the cable channels I see the commercials for “ultimate boxing,” in which fists and knees and leg kicks are all legal, and for “cage boxing,” which seems eerily similar to the dog fighting venue.
I have sat ringside at one boxing event. It was in Scranton, Pennsylvania, when I was reporting a story on a little known but up-and-coming boxing promoter named Don King and a boxer named Larry Holmes. Thanks to the flamboyant King, I sat within three feet of the ring. I have seen plenty of boxing on television, but this time I heard the action as well.
As punches landed there was often a strange sizzling sound that accompanied them. Eventually I figured it out: The sizzle was the sound of flecks of flesh being torn from a fighter’s face. Who killed Davey Moore, why and what’s the reason for. Not me, said the young sportswriter, pounding away on his typewriter. Besides, those boxers should have known better.
Yes, we stand on higher ground than Michael Vick, and I was wrong to suggest that any of you have any part of Vick in you. But from that higher ground the slope does seem a little slippery to me.
With the media leading us by the nose, we will turn our attention from Michael Vick to the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death on August 31. The other night, while that crocodile and his buddies were still tearing through the leather-tough flesh of the zebra, I happened onto an interview of the princess, being reprised as part of Diana week. The dogged correspondent closed in on the question of her then failing marriage to Prince Charles.
Was her relationship with some other man — I missed the name because I had been lolling with the crocodile — more than just friendship, the interviewer asked. Diana batted her deer-in-the-headlights eyes in affirmation. Did it in fact become an extra-marital affair? Yes, admitted the contrite but still foxy princess to the persistent newsman.
So I was wrong to liken us to Michael Vick. I should have said there is a little bit of the pit bull, or at least the fox hound, in many of us.