Like Great Whites that had gorged for months only to discover the food supply was running low, leaving the beasts to thrash about in a frenzied search for morsels on which to feed, news organizations unleashed their full fury on reports that a killer shark had struck off Southern California. Within seconds, CNN, MSNBC and Fox set aside clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's dreadfully boring interview with Bill Moyers and went into full Shark Alert.
Los Angeles TV stations, whose helicopters are at constant readiness for both high- and low-speed auto chases, diverted to the beach for nonstop surf coverage.
The cast that gathered on the sand for a hastily arranged news conference, beamed live to a nationwide audience desperate for any scrap of news as long as it didn't involve polls, pundits or superdelegates, looked remarkably like characters from the film "Jaws."
Deputy Fire Chief Dismas Ableman decided to wear his firefighting helmet and raincoat for his beach appearance, telling the nation, "The cause of death was a large marine animal." He was followed by a gray-bearded old timer from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Richard Rosenblatt, who noted that this was, "a case of typical white shark behavior."
The Orange County Register moved all political news off the front page and came up with the headline: "Shaken and Shocked." Four hundred miles up the coast, The San Francisco Chronicle used even larger front-page type to declare: "DEATH AT THE BEACH."
The Los Angeles Times interviewed a biologist from St. Mary's College who concluded that sensationalism by media might be contributing to giving Great White sharks "a bad rap."
But on Fox, Bill O'Reilly turned to jack-of-all-journalism Geraldo Rivera for a special segment on the shark attack, in which it was clarified that Rivera has owned a house in Malibu for "over 30 years." Rivera reported that although he has never encountered a shark while swimming, "I've seen them from my sailboat and I can tell you there is nothing more terrifying."
At about the same time on CNN, Larry King was debriefing reporter Ted Rowlands about the use of helicopters. "It's kind of like trying to find a needle in a haystack, Larry," explained Rowlands, overlooking the fact that it was even more like trying to find a shark in an ocean.
Numerous networks interviewed surfer Rob Blase, who was at the beach when the attack occurred Friday morning. "I heard someone yell 'shark,'" he said on ABC. It was eerily similar to the scene in "Jaws" when Mayor Larry Vaughn exclaims: "You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh? What?' You yell 'shark,' and we've got a panic on our hands."
The San Diego Union-Tribune did some quick research and discovered that during an average 78-year lifetime, a person has about one chance in five of succumbing to heart disease; one chance in 84 of dying in a car crash; one chance in 340,733 of being killed by fireworks, and one chance in 3,748,067 of being killed by a shark.
So, despite the brief break from politics, there seems little chance CNN will bother boasting that it now has the "Best Marine Biology Team in Television." Or that MSNBC will decide to rename itself "The Place for Sharks."
© Peter Funt.