It has been five weeks since University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died from cocaine intoxication. In the weeks since his death, it seems that each day has brought some new press revelation, some new innuendo. There has been an unprecedented, some say unwarranted, amount of media attention.
Sports has a special place in the black community. Like entertainment, it is a vehicle for social and economic mobility, helping many poor black men and women climb the ladder of success. So the death of a great athlete, such as Bias, is of interest and significance.
But was it really necessary to stretch out the story, to let it linger in the press so long? If the phone calls I have received from residents are any indication, there are quite a few people who think the media are guilty of overkill. A few of the callers -- who identified themselves as the mothers of black men -- have suggested that the media used the tragedy of Bias' death as an opportunity to denigrate black men.
As one woman complained to me, overcoverage of Len Bias' death is a form of character assassination, and by extension of black men.
There is a certain truth to these charges. The media, in their unprecedented coverage, treated Len Bias' death as a tragic soap opera with fresh details being leaked daily from the Prince George's County state's attorney's office and new characters coming into the plot.
To find out why the Len Bias story has been so intensely covered by the media, I decided to call the people who should have the answers: some members of the media.
Jim Van Messel, news director of Channel 4, which has carried almost 40 reports since the June 19 tragedy, says the media aren't overblowing the Len Bias story. The story, he said, is important in part because it is universal.
"It cuts across everyday life, affecting what we're all facing -- parents with children, kids influenced by peers or being tempted. The Bias story is not about a bad kid who went down the tubes, but a true American hero and a tragedy that befell him."
Karen Jurgensen, a managing editor of USA Today, which has carried several full-page accounts of the Bias case, said the public is hungry for even more details. "The public has a lot of interest in it and a lot of concern for the drug problem. Parents identity with it, community leaders identify with it. What we've seen across the country in the past month or so is an increase in community interest. It has captured everybody's imagination and made people really stop and think about what is happening in their own communities with their own kids."
But a media analyst, Dr. George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, said the complaints of those who say the media are guilty of overkill are valid.
"My research shows an issue like drugs . . . has been used at least in part to intimidate people . . . and establish in the public mind a link between certain groups and various kinds of distasteful and dangerous practices."
After discussing how the public is often confused by new stories because the media do not put them in perspective, Gerbner added, "We talk about drug use among minorities, but you don't have the same publicity about drug use among elite groups."
Indeed, Van Messel, the Channel 4 news director, acknowledged that he could understand where "a segment of the population" might feel the Bias story cast black males in a negative light. Still, he said, "I would feel terrible if anybody inferred from our coverage that black kids can't handle the pressure of success."
In response to both Van Messel and Jurgensen saying their readers and viewers are demanding even more news about the case, this question can be asked about the media in general: Should the public be given more news on a particular story even if there is little new news? Frankly, that is a question I cannot answer.
But Gerbner implies they shouldn't. "I suspect the kind of person who wants more news about the Bias case is motivated by a law-and-order mentality. The association between drug users, crime and the culture's fear of the least privileged groups is very strong in many minds."
Whatever the media ethics in the case of Len Bias, it's clear that many of the players in this tragedy have motives that do not readily come to light. Some have accused Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. of using the Bias case as a vehicle for his political career. Still others say that the Bias case is being used as a club with which to punish the athletic departments of American universities for the poor academic performances of some of their athletes.
As the grand jury investigation unfolds, new motives will appear with new revelations. And in the midst of this American tragedy one mother, Lonise Bias, can only continue to feel the loss and pain.