Paris & The “Plight of the Pachyderms”

  Our Modern Media World Don’t believe Ms Hilton’s Animal Magnetism rules here ; Trees fall, unheard Comment by Tom Lansner Tom Lansner is adjunct associate professor at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, specializing in international media and communications. He covered conflicts in many countries over a decade as correspondent for the London Observer and other publications. His three-part e-seminar on war reporting is available at Columbia Interactive.
HAVE we finally seen the perfect media storm? The Mid-November’s teacup tempest blew away many other stories, and then became more complex as a torrent of denials and clouds of obfuscation buried a genuinely important story. In a nutshell, an AP stringer in Gauhauti, the biggest city in Northeast India, filed on 13 November describing local reaction to Paris Hilton’s reported concern over elephants that died in an electrocution accident after sucking down stores of local famers’ rice beer. Paris’s “publicist couldn’t immediately be reached for comment,” AP waved as due diligence. After all, the source was an entertainment website that said it saw the piece in a British tabloid. This story was obviously too good to hold for verification. Hit “send” immediately! Today, anything Paris Hilton — or Britney, etc.— does (or even doesn’t really do, in this case, as we soon see) is major news for even many of our allegedly most serious news outlets. AP ran it hard. Pravda picked it up. YahooNews and the Hindustan Times got excited. The Critternews blog commented.  The Orange Country Register in California even elevated Paris’s conjured quote to a headline screamer : “Don’t give booze to elephants, sobs Paris Hilton”. And the story got second life when Hilton’s spokesperson flatly
denied the tale. A Google search on 28 November for “Paris Hilton India
elephants drunk” returns nearly 350,000 hits. Yes, this was BIG news. The irony of the booze-soaked media
appetizer crying — dare we say crocodile tears? — over what AP said
“activists” described rather unoriginally as the “plight of the
pachyderms” was simply too delicious to let drunken dead elephants lie.
Even the New York Times couldn’t resist joining the circus, reporting it as a media story . The story gives us a crucial lesson about celebrity. Starlets are
great copy, but get an elephant involved to see the story really take
off. Or perhaps a whale, a dolphin, or just a doggie. We love them all, of course. And animals, or at least animals like elephants, whales, dolphins
and doggies, are victims intrinsically worthy of our attention, rising
high in what one scholar described, in discussing depictions of
children in media, as a “ hierarchy of innocence .”
We observe this especially in reporting of humanitarian disasters and
in conflicts, where reports of killing or saving children, some of them
true, have long been used to demonize or lionize parties purportedly
involved. But elephants are extra-special, even if fictional ( Babar ) or better, godly (Jai Ganesha !).
And when we anthropomorphize our animal friends, they sometimes they
seem even more innocent, and thus more worthy as victims, than our own
genuinely human children. Newsweek explicitly recognized this in 1999, even if its
subject, “Motala,” was no kid was she stepped on landmine: “The world
hardly needs more poster material for the plight of land-mine victims,” wrote the magazine’s Southeast Asia correspondent ,
“But Motala is as innocent as they come. The 38-year-old Asian elephant
stepped on a land mine deep in the war-torn jungle in southern Burma
while rummaging for food on a break from her heavy workload.” Hard-working Motala’s maiming made worldwide news. Donations for her
rehabilitation (a word also heard in conjunction with Paris Hilton,
even if she can finance her own) poured in from around the globe. And here
you can see recent photos of Motala sporting her elephant-sized
prostheses in Thailand. She was an innocent and most worthy victim
indeed. Yet the plight of displaced Burmese children, women and men who
also wander these same jungles in flight from their country’s murderous
military, and who with despairingly sad regularity are blown up by similar landmines has never captured such sweeping media attention. Audience response proves that people are drawn in and engaged by
animal tales. It is a lesson that editors and campaigners know very
well. Coverage of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami went into even
higher gear when elephants were rumored to have sensed the impending
disaster, or saved children from its fury. And the stranded pets of
Katrina, bereft as their owners of meaningful help from the authorities
as waters rose, received enormous media attention and an explosion of
offers of safe haven. Gorillas & Congo raises more Google hits than
Guerillas & Congo. Eventually, Hilton’s flak knocked down the story
(a savvier publicist surely would have trumpeted a Paris press
conference to demand preservation of plastered pachyderms). Yet even if
the AP reporter failed to verify Paris’s quote, he did a fine job of
gathering local opinion in northeastern India. Above all, was the
message, let’s not blame the elephants. “Elephants appear on human
settlements …,” AP quoted a local conservationist as urging Paris to
tell the world, “ because they have no habitat left due to wanton destruction of forests [empahsis added].” So here is the very serious story, at last. The world’s forests [and
its elephants, and its gorillas], are disappearing. The big problem
just did not get very much attention. The media, and their audiences,
were having too much fun to notice. No, we won’t always have Paris. Nubile media faves grow fat or fade
away, but elephants… elephants… are never, ever, forgotten. And, coincidentally, please see: A young admirer investigates a painted elephant
in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Fifty elephants, each of them decorated by a
different artists, are on display in the city’s World Trade Centre. All
of the painted pachyderms will be auctioned off on Nov. 17, and the
proceeds used to build an elephant hospital in Thailand. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Fifty elephants by artists
such as Rodrigo Otazu and Jurriaan van Hall on display before being
auctioned. The money raised by the auction of the elephants will be
used to build an elephant hospital in Thailand Photograph: Ed Oudenaarden/EPA

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