clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Titanic sub joins a long history of search and rescue media circuses

Why are we so obsessed with watching trapped people face death?

A press conference on a boat dock.
Rear Adm. John Mauger gives an update on the search efforts for the five people aboard the Titan submersible, June 22, 2023, in Boston, Massachusetts.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled over the past 24 hours about the media coverage of the Titan, the submersible that went missing on a trip to visit the site of the Titanic. Five people, including the CEO of the submersibles company OceanGate, are now declared dead after days of frequent live updates. Was the media attention overkill? Did many of the comments on platforms like Twitter and TikTok seem callous?

Yes and yes. An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday was typical, describing the coverage of the doomed trek to the Titanic as a “bizarre media feeding frenzy that we have become accustomed to in the 21st century.” The writer went on to characterize the coverage as “exploitative” and lamented the “terror unfolding in real time.” A writer in Australia complained, “Online, people seem to be ignoring that people have died and instead are concentrating on what their deaths and privilege say about modern society.”

We shouldn’t pretend like any of this is new. There’s over a century of mass media events in the US that prove the public’s insatiable thirst for the sensational and using new technology to consume that news. All the better if you have a very tangible countdown to disaster — a detail that became instrumental to the story when we learned the sub was capable of providing oxygen for just 96 hours.

But we’ve experienced this same kind of real-time media event countless times, all thanks to old-school media technologies like newspapers, radio, and TV. Reporters become our eyes and our ears on the ground, turning every news consumer into a kind of high-tech voyeur, even if we don’t think of platforms like radio as particularly cutting-edge these days. It’s funny how something as simple as a vacuum tube can turn miles into seconds. The technology to potentially save lives also becomes integral to the story, as we saw back in 2018 when a youth soccer team and their coach got stuck in a cave in Thailand and the entire world seemed to have ideas on what particular gadget could be used to help get them out. We saw the same thing again in the North Atlantic this week, as planes, ships, and robots swarmed the scene above the shipwreck.

And if you think people of the past were more empathetic and dignified in the face of tragedy, I’ve got some bad news for you. Not only are you romanticizing a version of America that never really existed; you’re also overlooking the argument that the news we consume is sanitized compared to the days of tabloid spreads, which were once regularly filled with graphic depictions of death.

A photo from the 1920s showing tents, cars, and a hamburger stand in the middle of a large crowd of people.
The circus-like atmosphere near Sand Cave, where Floyd Collins was trapped in February 1925.
Kentucky National Guard

Take the case of 37-year-old W. Floyd Collins, who was exploring caves in his home state of Kentucky in 1925. Hoping to find a new tourist attraction, Collins ventured into Sand Cave in early February of that year when his foot became trapped by a large boulder. The following day, his family came looking for him, and word of his ordeal soon got out through newspapers and radio.

Each passing day brought new people to Sand Cave to come gawk at the scene. By the ninth day, one newspaper estimated the crowd had surged to 5,000 people, and there were reportedly cars from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and West Virginia sitting in a makeshift parking lot near the cave. Others put the number closer to 2,000, but whatever the real number, it had become quite the circus. Vendors showed up to sell everything from hamburgers to balloons. Radio, still a relatively new broadcasting medium, allowed journalists to report directly from the scene. And newspaper reporters came from all over the country to give readers the latest, at a time when there were nearly 15,000 papers in the US, compared to fewer than 6,500 today. The local railroad service even added additional passenger cars to deal with the influx of people.

And the media coverage wasn’t always nice. The cover of the February 9, 1925, edition of the Pensacola Journal in Florida speculated that Collins might be faking the accident, suggesting he wasn’t really trapped at all and just wanted the attention. The sub-headline declared that he was a “shiftless fellow,” according to his neighbors. The Daily News Leader in Staunton, Virginia, made allusions in its February 12, 1925, edition that a crime had been committed, but didn’t elaborate. The paper also quoted a local minister as saying there was “evidence of drinking” in the area — a damning indictment when you remember this was during the era of Prohibition. (The one-liners about the hubris of billionaires stuck in a tube trying to catch a glimpse of the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean were their own kind of drive-by moralizing that struck a lot of people as too harsh in a time of potential tragedy.)

Collins died after 14 days, but those trying to rescue him wouldn’t reach the body until three more days had passed. A fake photo of Collins’s dead body circulated, though his body wasn’t removed from where he’d been trapped until two months later.

Director Billy Wilder would draw inspiration from the media reaction to Collins for the 1951 film Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous newspaper reporter who’s the first to learn about a man trapped in a cave. Douglas’s character manipulates the local authorities into a rescue plan that takes more time than necessary, drawing out the story and allowing him to create a media circus not unlike the one that happened when Collins was trapped a quarter of a century earlier. Just like in real life, the man at the heart of the story dies.

Another example of a gruesome, real-time news frenzy comes from 1938, when 26-year-old John Warde threatened to jump off a narrow ledge from the 17th floor of the Gotham Hotel in New York. While Warde spent over 11 hours contemplating his future, newspapers rushed out editions, radio announcers narrated the event, and some of the earliest TV broadcast cameras were trained on Warde. Poor Warde eventually made good on his threat, and the Associated Press sent out a particularly cold assessment of the man, whose body was unclaimed at the morgue and “alone in death” but who “thrilled tens of thousands of spectators.”

Even the magazines, on a much longer production schedule than the newspapers, were fascinated with Warde’s unusually long perch on the hotel ledge. The headline from a 1938 issue of Radio-Craft magazine read “SUICIDE NO. 2 TELEVISED!” and included a reprint of the TV image with Warde circled for good measure. Warde’s story was also made into a movie: 1951’s Fourteen Hours. But the Hollywood version didn’t kill Warde.

Thai General Bancha Duriyaphan speaks to the press after 12 boys and their soccer coach were rescued from a cave in July 2018.
Linh Pham/Getty Images

Fast forward to the summer of 2018, and you’ll find a similar circus unfolded in Thailand — this time fueled not only by newspapers and live TV but also by social media. There, 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a cave, and the entire internet descended on the event, watching each day as the amount of time left to rescue the team alive dwindled. Elon Musk even tried to play the hero, visiting the outside of the cave and declaring that a 5-foot-long “mini-sub” of his design could extract the kids safely. When an expert cave explorer explained publicly how terrible Musk’s idea was, the billionaire baselessly called the expert a “pedo” on Twitter. Like so many search-and-rescue efforts, the Thai cave event ended with a mixture of tragedy and triumph. A former Thai Navy SEAL died after he lost consciousness during the prolonged rescue effort, but ultimately, the trapped kids were rescued alive.

And what about the death countdown for that submersible this week? NewsNation got heat for its countdown clock, but like it or not, the idea of having a ticking clock is basically what TV was invented for. Fox News recently featured a countdown in its lower right-hand corner for the end of Title 42, the pandemic-era rule that allowed US Customs and Border Protection to turn away asylum seekers at the border. Most forms of popular media, but especially TV, love a countdown, no matter how grim or how dire the human stakes.

The long and the short of it is that American media has always been obsessed with the darker elements of humanity. And while it might feel like people are gawking through their smartphones at imminent tragedy, there’s no question that people are simply drawn to a compelling narrative with life-or-death stakes. A basketball shot clock where human lives hang in the balance might make some people feel queasy, but it’s probably worth remembering what the five people who lost their lives this week were doing down there in the first place. At the end of the day, they were on a tourist trip to the bottom of the sea, there to gawk at a tragedy, albeit one that happened in 1912.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.