Becoming a Celebrity for the Wrong Reasons

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Firefighters walk past a burned engine of an airplane at Fort Lauderdale Airport in Florida, Oct. 29, 2015.Credit: AP

Two weeks ago, on October 29, I became a celebrity for seven hours. I fielded interview requests from around the world, major news networks posted my name and Twitter handle on their global broadcasts, and I received excited texts and calls from friends and family.

The fame was not due to my day job – where I am the head of a network of over 90 groups that work to build peace between Jews and Arabs – but thanks to a quirk of fate.

The story begins just before noon EST. My friend Jared is sitting in an airplane on the runway in Florida, waiting to fly back to Chicago, where we have plans for a fun evening before his return to the Gulf for work. While on the runway, Jared spots a plane on fire, films it and texts the video to me – as proof for why he's going to be late.

Getting a video of a plane on fire is quite something, so I post it to Twitter with the hashtag #FLL (the code for Fort Lauderdale airport, where he was at).

Within 30 seconds, my Twitter feed explodes. Fox, CNN, CBS, Telemundo and AFP, to name a few, are getting in touch to ask permission to use the footage and to interview Jared.

Over the course of seven hours I fielded dozens of calls and tweets of people trying to get in touch with Jared, who had the bizarre experience of seeing his name on CNN breaking news while he was in the air on his way to Chicago. 

Jared and I have a combined 15 years of professional experience working in Middle East peace work. Yet, neither of us has ever garnered such attention – not for us or our work – as when we happened to be able to show footage of a plane in flames.

This is normally where one could go on a rant about the media only reporting disaster news and that if it bleeds – or in this case, burns – it leads. Yet in the ad-driven, social media-shareable environment, it’s the consumers who are driving the content; not the journalists. Our obsession for news porn – fire, death and destruction – and our capacity to digest only bite-sized chunks of information push complex topics all the way to the back of the line.

Sure, there is some market for uplifting and positive stories. But we news consumers largely live on a media diet that describes the world as simple and dire.

Donors and stakeholders often ask me why my peace-building network doesn’t try to get more media attention for the positive news that emerges from our member organization's initiatives. The problem, I explain, is there is no narrative to link the stories to; each is an independent good action that seemingly exists in a vacuum.

Instead, I focus on increasing the type of attention that our membership gets. We will never compete with the 30-second sound bite. A key aspect of what I do is getting journalists and opinion-shapers to recognize that the work of peace building is not nice, or cute, or just a human-interest story. This work is necessary. It’s as necessary as the physical security dynamics that dominate the headlines and it's as necessary as the economic trade that fills up business sections.

Sadly, the work that Jared and I have dedicated our lives to will never make the headlines. Our work is packed with too much of a complex reality to fit into the Twitter wars that dominate the public sphere. Maybe we can get opinion shapers to take it seriously now and again. And perhaps we can find the key segment of the population that appreciates that complexity is not something to be terrified of, but embraced. Failing that we can always just film more disasters.

Joel is the Executive Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace. All views expressed are personal. He tweets @Braunold.

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