When Memorial Becomes Spectacle

The exploitative remembrance of Samantha Runnion

Marshall McLuhan—the man who famously observed that "the medium is the message"—is perhaps more often quoted than understood, himself a victim of medium/message confusion. Here's what he meant: the modern media is so powerful that anything on which it focuses is deemed significant simply because the media is reporting it. Indeed, the media's presence is the story. This story—the one you're reading now, about the media's coverage of the Samantha Runnion murder—is more evidence.

There was evidence in the Los Angeles Times, too, in the anecdotes of those who attended the funeral for the Stanton 5-year-old who was abducted, raped and murdered two weeks ago.

"I just felt obligated to come today," an Oxnard man who attended Runnion's July 25 Crystal Cathedral memorial service told the Times. "I'm on vacation. But we felt that instead of going to Universal Studios, it was better to come to Samantha's service."

The same article described how three other vacationgoers "had already been to Universal Studios and did the tour of Hollywood stars' homes. On Wednesday, they found themselves at Samantha's service."

Abduction cases occur frequently across the country, not to mention daily murders, rapes and assaults. But few provoke such formal public grief as Runnion's brutal killing. Her funeral was attended by more than 3,000 people and broadcast live locally on KCAL-TV 9 and nationally on CNN.

One reason for the widespread interest—the rationalization repeated in the press—was the search for a collective catharsis by a still-spooked public. But the transition of Runnion from crime statistic to press (and, therefore, national) obsession is best explained by McLuhan—by the media's ability to transform the terrible and small into the terrible and profound. Samantha was simply an icon.

The terrible nature of the crime immediately attracted reporters. Nothing unusual or wrong with that. But soon, an iconic image—Runnion's cherubic face embodying innocence lost—was introduced and diffused across the world, offering audiences a human face to connect with the otherwise distant story.

The media then reproduced comments like Sheriff Mike Carona's Wild West invocation in deputizing the press and public as his "posse" in capturing suspect Alejandro Avila; that allowed the public to find the requisite idol for their plot. Almost immediately, a nation unaware of Carona a week earlier was calling him a national hero, with Larry King even suggesting that our sheriff could run for president—and win. (Perhaps hoping to get some of that magic to rub off on him, President George W. Bush had Carona flown in to the nation's capital to personally—and publicly—thank him on July 26.)

Then, too, there was resolution: Avila's quick arrest provided the one dramatic aspect without which conceivably more profound stories have died. Systematic corruption in the district attorney's office, for example, has been exposed but remains unpunished.

The result: a media circus so three-ringed that a spokesperson for the Crystal Cathedral couldn't estimate how many different news agencies attended the memorial service, saying the figure was "innumerable."

What that mass of media served the public was more circus than an opportunity to connect with the girl. This explains KCAL's treatment of the Runnion funeral broadcast as a Hollywood production—complete with fades, zooms and close-ups of all the major players, including the coffin. And it gives us a clue why so many people ditched Universal Studios to attend a funeral.

Carona and Erin Runnion (Samantha's mom) are blameless for the sad devolution of Samantha's memory; one did his job well, the other lamented her child's fate. But with a media so intent on hero- and martyr-making and a nation desiring both, Runnion's short life remains out there. "She will be with us forever," one funeral attendee said. We would add only, "until the next missing child."