In ancient America, back in the '60s and '70s, it was easy to reduce the media to quivering, blithering mush. All it took was a successful space mission. Remember old Cronkite swooning at the men on the moon?
In these days of media cynicism and jadedness, don't you sometimes wish we could have those simple times back again?
And, um, did you wake up a few days ago and notice they were back?
"A Triumphant Landing on Mars," announced the front page of The Washington Post, in an above-the-fold story topped by a huge picture of the martian landscape, shot from inside NASA's Spirit rover. The picture wasn't very good, just a faint gray foretaste of the full-color, panoramic, high-definition, 3-D, George Lucasesque shots that would come later in the week. But it was Mars and we were on it, and that was what mattered at the moment.
Beneath the headline, near the center of the page, was a color shot of a middle-aged man wearing a huge mustache-fringed grin and clapping his hands, just beneath a large NASA logo. It was a wonderful photo choice, in that this giddy fellow—Pete Theisinger, the mission's project manager—personified the culture's mood as this story broke.
After a year full of war debate, war itself, and the messy aftermath of war, after a holiday season full of terrorist warnings and mad cows, and with the presidential campaign already seeming brutish and long, you could feel the country yearning for something hopeful. Sure, there's the soaring stock market, and it's gotten decent play in the past few weeks. But news people have learned their lessons about pumping Wall Street and are now careful to hedge every frothy market headline with reminders of the dark possibilities.
The Mars story was different: It had all the goods to dispel the jitters and the gloom, with less downside. Like the economic story, this was partly about a stunning comeback—just a year ago, the shuttle Columbia burned up on re-entry. But unlike Wall Street gains, this feat can't be erased tomorrow. Once you've notched a perfect landing (or hit the "scientific sweet spot," as one scientist put it, giving the Los Angeles Times its own above-the-fold headline) and sent back images of never-before-seen clarity, you're not just talking news, but discovery, progress, the march of history. We can have endless debates about how we're doing in Iraq. But for a few days this week, there was no arguing about how we were doing on Mars.
Thus, much of the news establishment gave the story the same first-class treatment it got in The Post. The New York Times also played it at center top, though with a "mosaic image" (whatever that is) of the rover shot from above—much less compelling than the landscape image that The Post and others chose. The next day, The Times' editorial page was uncharacteristically beside itself: "Hats off to NASA for breaking the jinx that has doomed so many space missions to Mars.... What a welcome change after a number of discouraging failures over the past several decades!" The Wall Street Journal's front-page "What's News" digest, normally a terse, buttoned-up column, let itself go a tiny bit wild: "NASA exulted as the Spirit landed on Mars in an apparent dry lake bed propitious for exploration. Photos are already streaming home, and weeks of mesmerizing images are promised if good fortune holds."
At one point on CNN, a space expert advised Soledad O'Brien that this was "one of the most exciting times to be alive in the history of humanity." And O'Brien seemed, in her Delphic way, to enjoy his giddiness.
But it was USA Today that captured, with signature artlessness, the spirit that animated this story. "We're back. We're on Mars," said the front-page headline, quoting NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. It was up to the reader to decide who "we" were, but given the news outlet delivering the line, you could assume it included you. And isn't that a swell feeling, to know you're back? Sometimes, the media are better than any psychotherapist, and you can't beat the price.
Even radio, bereft of the killer images, got in on the act. Charles Osgood, who delivers those emphatically folksy mini-commentaries on CBS Radio's The Osgood File, saw in the red planet a balm for these troubled times:
"On too many issues, you have no idea who's right and who's wrong. I don't know which candidate has the best health care plan or the best tax reform or the best excuse for some embarrassing vote he cast, but, by golly, I know who can get a space probe to Mars; it's those high-fiving NASA scientists. And consider this, consider how it was done: No floor debates on the laws of physics, no concerns that the scientists' views on gravity might not appeal to Southern voters, because NASA wasn't dealing with anything as complex as Washington. It was merely dealing with the eternal cosmos, and the eternal cosmos is unimpressed by pandering, doesn't even care what religion you are. You either follow its rules, or it spits you out."
And that was the real point of the Mars hooha, wasn't it? That sweet little "rover" (great word, full of doglike innocence) snapping those nice "postcards" didn't pull any of the nasty, confusing moves most news stories, and some people, pull every day. It just aimed to please. And so it did.
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