Milton Berle, definitely out. Woody Allen, put him out there. Sean Connery, sorry, he's inside. Kirk Douglas, inside.
In or Out is the game, as in, when this famous person dies, does the paper put the news on an inside page or out on Page One? It's one of the oldest, most fun and most ghoulish of newsroom pastimes. Any president, clearly out. Dan Quayle, out -- if it's in the next 15 years. But Walter Mondale, probably in. Sharon Pratt Kelly, in. Marion Barry, out -- in a flash.
You can play for hours -- instant analyses of what's significant in our lives, a lightning-fast way to find out what your friends value. Bill Gates, out. Steve Case, out, but only in Washington. Lee Iacocca, in.
But now there's a whole new game, with a completely different set of standards. It's called Going 24, as in, whose death will precipitate another of those orgies of coverage in which the 24-hour cable news channels ignore everything else in the world to whip up emotions and squeeze the public for tears and ratings points?
This is a much narrower universe than the world of Page One candidates. And significance -- what a person has actually done -- plays very little role in these choices.
Play In or Out, and you'll find yourself discussing the relative worth of being the second guy to walk on the moon, leading a worldwide cult or directing "Apocalypse Now." (Buzz Aldrin, Sun Myung Moon, Francis Ford Coppola -- all out, though Aldrin only if Neil Armstrong survives him. Sorry, it's a harsh world.)
But play Going 24, and no such judgments are necessary. Now, only your emotions matter. Whose death will tap into deep memories? Whose passing can be mined to lay bare a rich vein of nostalgia that can be converted into a bottomless curiosity that you loathe to see in yourself, but cannot stamp out? Princess Di and JFK Jr. were obvious choices -- royal figures, with cross-generational appeal and images seared into what's left of our collective unconscious. Sinatra came close.
Who else? Perhaps Billy Graham and Bob Hope, probably the two remaining great Americans of the century. Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, entertainers with the kind of appeal it is no longer possible to generate, given how splintered pop culture has become in a 300-channel universe. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, but no other past president. The others just didn't sink into our lives enough, generating neither the devotion nor the loathing that Clinton and Reagan did.
Katharine Hepburn -- maybe. The pope -- this one, yes. Mikhail Gorbachev -- no. Probably no foreign leader except maybe Saddam Hussein, and only if he goes violently. No scientist, no philosopher, no judge. But watch those cable channels sizzle when Paul McCartney goes. But not Mick Jagger.
Just as targeted marketing, ethnic pride, the Internet and cable TV have stolen our sense of a common culture, so too do the 24-hour news channels impair our ability to judge what is of such overriding importance that we drop everything and seek community in information.
It wasn't long ago that each of us defined crises for ourselves. That was before information became such a valuable commodity. Maybe a garbage collectors' strike would qualify, maybe the failure of schools to open on time. Certainly when the lights went out in the great blackouts of my youth, we accepted that as a crisis; stories about playing Monopoly by candlelight have become legend in my family. But the point is, we got to pick our own crises and choose how to deal with them -- on our own terms. If I saw my parents in tears when JFK (the first one) was killed, I made that a moment to remember. TV didn't yet determine such things. And if the death of Elvis meant nothing whatever to me, I could opt out; the celebrity culture and the arrogance of TV had not yet become so pervasive.
We had the self-assurance to make our own choices, in part because we weren't just sitting in front of a screen watching others scurry to the market to stock up on water, or light candles in front of the British Embassy, or place flowers in front of a Tribeca apartment building. People watched a load of TV, but not like they do today. Talk all you want to about time stress, but the fact is, Americans watch more TV than ever, according to the University of Maryland's ongoing, 30-year "Use of Time" study.
When we watched less TV, when there was less TV to watch, no one had to convince us that an assassination was "An American Tragedy." No one had to compose a dramatic theme to accompany the snazzola graphics that announce that we as a nation are Going 24.
But now when we hear that music and the urgency in Brian Williams's voice, we respond, like trained dogs. The news channels say we are moved, and so we are. The folks who make those decisions squeal in protest against any insinuation that they are manipulating events, manufacturing crisis. But deep down, they know Going 24 is a big, profitable, fun game. And oddly enough, we know it too. And still we play along.
Marc Fisher's e-mail address is email@example.com.