Opinion

Opinion | Michael J. Socolow

The Thai teens and the baby in the well

A handout photo made available by the Royal Thai Navy on shows a Thai 'Navy Seal' Underwater Demolition Assault Unit team wading through the flood as they inspect inside the cave during a search and rescue operation for a missing football team at the Tham Luang cave in Tham Luang Khun Nam Nang Noon Forest Park in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, 30 June 2018.
ROYAL THAI NAVY/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
A Thai Navy SEAL team inspects a cave during search and rescue operations for the missing soccer team on June 30.

It’s got everything: suspense, drama, and heroism. As it moves toward its conclusion, the rescue of the Thai soccer team stuck deep in a flooded cave is riveting the world’s attention. It’s a story of survival — told to us in real time — that will hopefully culminate in relief and gratitude.

It’s also a story we’ve all seen before. We’ve been primed for it because whether it was Baby Jessica McClure in 1987, or the Chilean miners in 2010, or earlier incarnations of the same narrative, these “baby-in-the-well” dramas remain a staple of American journalism. We enjoy these stories precisely because the actual facts are meaningless. These dramas can happen on the other side of the world, or in the next town over, and yet the connection we feel is immediate and personal.

The baby-in-the-well story, of which the Thai rescue is a variant, has a long history in American media. They proved so memorable when radio broadcasting originated that Woody Allen used one to provide dramatic tension in his 1987 film “Radio Days.” Even earlier, Kirk Douglas starred in Billy Wilder’s 1951 film “Ace in the Hole,” about an unscrupulous reporter exploiting the rescue effort for a man trapped in a cave. Seeking to maximize publicity and rehabilitate his career, Douglas’s character turns the cave rescue into a carnival, as thousands flock to the scene. Wilder’s film made its way to theaters only two years after the Baby Kathy Fiscus story riveted Los Angeles’s earliest television audiences. The three-year-old Fiscus died falling into a well, though rescuers didn’t know it at the time. The wall-to-wall live coverage in 1949, on station KTLA, played a monumental role in the establishment of television on the West Coast.

The major reason these stories resonate across the decades and in all forms of media is precisely because they are so formulaic. They are, in a sense, ready-made dramas combining all the electric presence of live broadcasting with the suspense of scripted drama. They are journalism. But they also integrate elements of entertainment, and, to a large degree, they even mimic sports broadcasting.

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These stories, unlike most news, have clearly discernible outcomes: Either life or death will be decided shortly. They have a beginning, a middle, and we — the audience — usually pick up just as they’re climaxing toward their end. They’re not exactly reality television (in that they’re not edited and packaged after filming in order to maximize dramatic tension), but they provide a participatory feeling that’s similar.

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Finally, there’s the existential element of these dramas. We’re thrilled because, in a sense, we all wonder about ourselves in these situations. We’re all trapped by life. Whether it’s a mortgage or debt, family issues, or other challenges that we face every day, life itself is a gamble. Watching these rescues forces us to reflect on our own courage and resilience. These stories are, in this sense, spiritual. We pray for the redemption of these kids, pulling us further into the narrative arc.

And that’s why these stories work. They’re undeniably thrilling but they also build community and make us recognize that life and death and heroism and courage are all a daily part of existence. Like a good myth or parable, these stories reaffirm the most basic elements of humanity. When Marshall McLuhan called the media “extensions of man,” he meant that literally, not figuratively. On radio, television, in the newspapers, or scrolling through a mobile device, these news stories remain the same even as our delivery devices evolve.

These stories offer a glimmer of hope that old formulas might retain power as technology continues to transform journalism. Regardless of the ultimate success or failure of the Thai rescue, we all know there will be another baby in the well. We’ll all tune in and follow it closely. Like Hollywood’s endless sequels, there’s a certain economic guarantee to these stories.

And perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson for producing profitable journalism in the digital age. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the narrative. Media history teaches how these and other formulaic narratives continually reoccur and prove irresistible to audiences. Looking to the most foundational aspects of journalism as a cultural practice might help reverse the economic devastation facing the media industries in this era of transformation.

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You might even say these stories could rescue journalism.

Michael J. Socolow is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine.