Re: Dead body/media/$100 toilet seats, etc.

Wade Tarzia (wade@PMC.UCONN.EDU)
Fri, 26 Jul 1996 09:23:18 -0400

This is the merest reply to a detail; apologies for microscopic ideas, but
I'm interested in mass-media behavior vs "the other side of the story."
John Cole mentioned:

>.... and the public seems to be conditioned
>to demand instant gratification--all or nothing. Even whistle-blower exposes
>focus on $500 hammers, not the nature of govt/corporate interaction, for
>example. ... I submit that there is political obfuscation and grandstanding

Just a case study of such a detail -- the media once grabbed hold of $100
toliet seats and $500 coffee pots in the production of the C-17 cargo
airplane. I was working for the company building the engines and met some
engineers involved in the project. I related this media folklore (folklore
as in process of belief and transmission, but theprices of thes eitems were
correct). The engineers groaned, having had to explain themselves a
zillion times, I guess. The toilet seats were $100 because they were
stainless steel (just like on airliners) and they would produce only about
300 of them -- typical priciness of any complex part with a short
production run. The toilet seats, and the coffee pots, too, were designed
to survive explosive decompression. That is, if this military plane took a
slug at altitude and decompressed, the designers didn't want ten gallons of
boiling coffee, piss, and shit bursting out into the cockpit.

These are fairly good reasons for the prices of these items, and may
explain other expensive items (why the space shuttle's special toilet was
subjected to such scrutiny -- it was far more expensive than the C-17's
toilet, I'll bet, would make another interesting case of media narrative
behavior!!!). I'm not defending bad gov't deals and the defense industry,
but I am detailing ways in which the media grabs an archetype or topos or
whatever jargon you want and lets it stand as an icon (visual or digital/$$
imagery being important buttresses for the icon). In-depth research behind
such sensational icons is not headline news too often. Picture an
interview with a white-shirted engineer explaining keeping shit contained
vs the financial scandal value of the over-priced toilet.

Same with the TWA crash? Focus on bodies is easier than spectrographic
analysis of stains in a wing? I've been on crash investigations (as a
technical writer, not investigator) of the airliner engines, and believe
me, the process is not ammenable to media excitement! The most exciting
thing was when a clod of mud fell out of an engine dug from an African
swamp, and live ants crawled out, and we had to stop the investigation and
call an official bug-person to certify they wouldn't contaminate the US.
The crisis never reached the papers. "They're regular ants," shrugged the

-- wade