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Inside NCR

In the air: whispers of grace, media disgrace

In the July 18 issue I wrote harshly of the Orange Order, the group that has been the cornerstone of Protestant/Unionist domination over Catholics in Northern Ireland for generations. I wouldn't withdraw a word of it, for Orangemen have been remote and sometimes proximate causes of division and hate over the years, raising the question whether the one who pulls the trigger is always the most guilty.

Then, to everyone's immense surprise, the Orangemen announced they would not, this year, march as planned through several exclusively Catholic areas. Never mind that they had little business marching down those Catholic streets at any time (such marches led to major havoc a year ago and often before). In the light of the pent-up animosities and traditions of spite that bind the province down in hopelessness, this gesture was a shocker. While the Orangemen claimed benevolent motives and their enemies saw only cynical self-interest of some enigmatic kind, it was hard not to sniff the faintest whiff of goodwill in the air.

Then a few days later, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, suggested it would be a good time for an IRA cease-fire. Two days later, July 20, the IRA did just that, renewing the 1994 cease-fire they interrupted 17 months ago in the face of John Major's refusal to play political ball. Only the foolhardy would suggest to either side that the Orange gesture had anything to do with the IRA gesture. Goodwill oozes very slowly and cautiously to the surface in old conflicts like this.

And yet, something profound happened, inducing an imperceptible warm glow from weary Northerners of all stripes. Societies sometimes get a jolt of magic or grace and rise above themselves, as they did in Eastern Europe and South Africa in the past few years -- leaping barriers that they themselves and others like them had previously been unable to leap for decades or centuries.

There is still a tight lid on euphoria in Northern Ireland -- so many old heartaches on the road they all traveled. While Britain's Tony Blair is trying to seat everyone at the peace table, the ineffable Rev. Ian Paisley has gone off in a huff. But something is in the air there, at the very time of year when animosity usually runs highest.

May the wind be at their back.

I didn't know Versace, the clothes designer, well. In fact I'd never heard of him. He designed for the beautiful people, which sort of ruled me out. I'm sorry he got killed -- as I'm sorry so many others get killed whom one never hears about -- but baffled by the amount of interest his demise has created.

For the first day or two after his death, the media didn't know how to play Versace. I surfed the networks the first evening. One said he was a famous designer for the rich and famous. But another hinted at clouds hanging over him. He was so rich, this report hinted, there were rumors he may have been laundering money for the Mafia. And other shady stuff. Never having heard of him, I was neutral on the issue. I never heard this money-laundering angle mentioned again. The media got their act together and seemingly figured there was more money in a Versace canonization.

Overnight, the dead designer grew wings and soared. A fellow from the Museum of Modern Art flitted from one news show to another and told us what an artist this man was. He made clothes into entertainment, this fellow said, though this didn't sound like a new concept to me. The more the media learned that Versace dressed the stars and Princess Di and Mike Tyson, the bigger he got.

"Of course I don't make clothes for boring people," he had said with pride, in an interview somewhere. He didn't define boring. The TV showed him over and over walking down ramps to a fast beat. He was the first to use rock music at his fashion shows, an expert said, probably the expert from the museum. He was always in the company of those girls, usually taller than he, very plastic and unreal, wearing his stuff. I'm no judge, but I'll bet you wouldn't want your mother to wear any of it. Very "revealing" -- that's "revealing" with a leer.

Let's face it: Versace's death was a godsend to the media. Not since O.J. Simpson had they anything this juicy. Lavish lifestyle, it was hinted, decadent and stylish and artistic, which the man from the museum seemed to be saying were the same thing. And great wealth. And then the murder. And sex everywhere. And the fugitive on the run, Andrew Cunanan, maybe wearing men's clothes, or maybe women's -- this Cunanan was potentially another godsend, a killer with charisma. Until his sensational death. The suspense left one breathless.

Unfortunately, this was not the diet of the tabloids (though presumably that too) but of the mainstream media and the evening newscasts. The newscasts of those newscasters who would, they often tell us, lay down their lives for the First Amendment and freedom of the press.

It's not just politicians -- as many aver -- who have lost the sense of shame. So have many of us in the media.

And we the people?

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997