Will the Media Ever Pay a Price for Its Irresponsibility?

Anyone remember Samantha Smith? Don’t run away to look her up on Google; I’ll come back to her in a moment and explain why her name occurs to me just now.

Two large media meta-narratives prompt the title question here. First, Michael Avenatti. Finished laughing? Okay, good; to continue: Avenatti was entirely the creation of the media, right down to the idea, which CNN and MSNBC took seriously, that he could be a presidential candidate in 2020. It is emerging now that the media knew first hand that Avenatti is a first class jerk, from the outrageous and rude way he treated the low- and mid-level media people (producers, etc) he dealt with in his nonstop media campaign. But because he was saying what the media wanted to hear (Trump is a horrible human being), the media were willing overlook all of the slime this reptile was leaving in media green rooms and on TV sets. (No one thought to ask after an Avenatti visit, “Why is our green room looking especially slime green today??”) So now it emerges that Avenatti tried to blackmail Nike, and stole Stormy Daniels’s book advance, among other things. Heck, they way things are going for Trump, I expect that Daniels will come out in favor of Trump’s re-election before we’re done. At least she got to keep Trump’s payoff money.

Incidentally, Avenatti’s sensational stunt in the middle of the Kavanaugh hearings might have been the turning point that assured Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The unsupported allegation that Kavanaugh was part of a teen “rape gang” was so absurd that it blunted the Blasey-Ford allegations. I wondered at the time whether Avenatti was a Karl Rove plant.

The second current media narrative concerns the Swedish schoolgirl who has become the face of climate change panic: Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, in case you live a sensible existence ignoring the media, is the 16-year-old who has “gone on strike” from school to protest for climate change action. It is fitting that a movement that increasingly displays the traits of a pre-teen temper tantrum would turn to an adolescent, and I admit it is a step up from listening to Al Gore. The World Economic Forum spotlighted Thunberg in its most recent gathering in Davos. She’s even given a TED Talk! So she must be right about climate change. I have mostly ignored this story, but then I made the mistake of picking up a copy of this week’s Time magazine, and Thunberg is prominently featured, in a four-page spread with custom photography, as the lead example of “next generation leaders.”

It is reported that the young Ms. Thunberg suffers from some degree of autism, but regardless, the point is: the media is ruining her life. She’s not going to be a next generation leader, and there is zero chance that Time will ever cover her again in her 20s or 30s. The high likelihood is that her early media celebrity is going to make a complete mess of her.

Which brings me back to Samantha Smith. Smith was the 10-year-old Maine schoolgirl who in 1983 wrote a letter to Soviet “leader” (as the media called him) Yuri Andropov expressing her worry about “Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war.” The Soviet propaganda machine made the most of it, releasing a supposed personal reply from Andropov that included contrivances such as “It seems to me, and I take it from your letter, that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling in some way Becky, Tom Sawyer’s friend from the well-known book by your compatriot Mark Twain. All kids in our country, boys and girls alike, know and love this book.” Andropov concluded the letter with an invitation for Smith to make an all-expense paid two-week trip to the Soviet Union so she could see firsthand how peaceful they were. “It was almost as if,” the Omaha World-Herald observed, “Andropov had taken a line from ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.’”

Andropov’s clumsy and transparent gesture set off an absurd media frenzy that propelled Smith into instant celebrity status. Print and TV network reporters descended upon Smith’s hometown of Manchester and set up a stakeout outside her home. The New York Times’ senior foreign correspondent John Burns filed several stories, and People magazine produced its usual spread of the latest instant celebrity.  Smith was booked on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (twice), the Today Show with Jane Pauley, and Nightline with Ted Koppel.  Reporters from France, England, Australia, Bulgaria, and Germany rang up for telephone interviews with the schoolgirl “diplomat,” as the media called her. There was talk of nominating her for the Nobel Peace Prize.  The media reported that Smith had sent a letter to Reagan as well, but it did not yield a White House invitation. The subtext of most stories was incredulity that Reagan couldn’t grasp the wisdom of a 10-year-old girl that was perfectly obvious to the adolescents in the news media. Only a few media accounts acknowledged the plain truth of the matter—that the Soviet Union was using Smith as a propaganda gesture.

With her parents in tow Smith made her two-week trip to the Soviet Union in July, with a media contingent of 68 along for the spectacle.  ABC World News Tonight sent Sam Donaldson to report on Smith’s visit to a youth camp and Red Square, though a hoped-for visit with Andropov never came off because of Andropov’s ill-health. Soviet spokesman Vladimir Pozner, a fixture on American television in the 1980s (especially the Phil Donahue Show) gleefully reported that “there are many Soviet citizens who have written and who write to President Reagan. He has chosen not to reply which is, of course, his prerogative.”  Smith returned home and dutifully reported that the Soviets were peace-loving people.

The story didn’t end there, and it didn’t end happily. The Today Show had Smith on for an encore where she challenged Ken Adelman on U.S. military spending.  She addressed an international youth conference in Japan.  A book project was hatched.  She hosted a 90-minute TV show in 1984, “Samantha Smith Goes to Washington,” in which she interviewed presidential hopefuls. Is this all starting to sound familiar when you see the media hype for Greta Thunberg right now?

In 1985, on her way back home from London, where she had been filming a pilot for a TV sitcom, Smith and her father were killed in a plane crash. Smith is remembered, if at all, as a symbol of youthful idealism. It is just as easy to see her as a victim of the media’s insatiable appetite for instant celebrity that can be used to advance the media elite’s sentimental story line.

The Soviet Union named a mountain peak after Smith and issued a commemorative postage stamp. In 1989, the Soviets opened the Samantha Smith Museum of the International Children’s Movement, whose theme was world peace.  She would be more justly remembered as an example of irresponsible media exploitation in an exhibit at the Newseum (except that the Newseum is folding, which shows that perhaps there is a little justice in the world).

Greta Thunberg is the Samantha Smith of our moment. But the media never pay a price for the damage they are doing to this young lady, just as they will never pay a price for puffing up Michael Avenatti.

Chaser: Tucker Carlson deserves a victory lap for correctly tagging Avenatti as “creepy porn lawyer”:

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