Who Are the Amish? Daily News Shows; Post Calls

After the Pennsylvania school shooting, a couple of New York tabloids struggle to explain these mysterious Amish to us.

Does it matter? Does it really matter for readers if a reporter, covering a side-bar-type story to a main news event, actually goes to the scene, talks to involved parties, observes the setting with her own eyes — versus phoning up a couple of “experts,” throwing in a few titillating factoids, and cranking out the piece from the office?

For an answer, let’s take a look at how two New York City tabloids handled the requisite “Who Are These Amish?” stories accompanying the papers’ main “shooting-in-Amish-school” reports today.

The tone is set, for both papers, in the lead.

The first two sentences of the New York Daily Newspiece are evocative, respectful, and informative (with a small splash of tabloid-ization at the very start): “When modern-day evil came to peaceful Amish country yesterday, it was greeted with traditional quiet stoicism by the community’s farmers and their wives. Whether it was a police offer of a helicopter ride to a hospital, or a Japanese TV crew pushing a microphone in their faces, the men and women determinedly living in a simpler past refused to bend to the present.” The New York Post, on the other hand, leads with a tacky reality television reference — “It’s the real ‘Simple Life’.” — justifying its nod to Paris Hilton’s show with the next explanatory sentence, “The Amish shun the trappings of the modern world, including electricity, telephones, TV and cars, traveling by horse and buggy ….”

To answer, for readers, the question of “Who Are These Amish?”, the News’ Helen Kennedy (with help from Brian Kates) actually went to Paradise, Pennsylvania, to talk to local people and observe and describe the affected community. Three cheers for shoe-leather reporting! Readers hear from multiple residents — such as, for example, “Amish fencer, John Fisher” who “lives about a mile from the one-room schoolhouse” where the shooting occurred and who makes these memorable comments: “We will mourn in our own way, quietly. We will pull together. We will do what needs to be done. Whether it’s crops to tend to, or animals to feed, or comforting the victims. There’s times you don’t need to make words.” The reporters recount for readers this moving image (with a dash of tabloid flair): “As the sun set over the cursed schoolhouse, three little girls in black dresses and white bonnets waded through waist-high grass to their gray farmhouse on the horizon — an especially moving sight given what had just happened to other little girls nearby.”

To crank out her “Amish, explained” story, the Post’s Cynthia R. Fagen generically schools readers on the ABCs of the Amish: “Since fleeing to America in the 18th century to avoid religious persecution in Switzerland, the Amish have insulated themselves from the ‘evils’ of the modern society. They don’t join the military, collect Social Security or accept government assistance.” The News’ Kennedy, too, gets the ABCs of the Amish into her story but does so in a way that shows how it all played into yesterday’s tragedy, rather than as an obligatory reminder to readers of how “different” the Amish are from you and me. Writes Kennedy: “The Pennsylvania Dutch preserve an 18th century pacifist religious lifestyle and shun the modern world, including cars and electricity. They till their fields with horse-drawn plows, worship in private at home and leave school after eighth grade to work on their land. Their simple ways not only added poignancy to the horror of yesterday’s massacre — they complicated the aftermath. The parents did not have phones, so contacting them quickly was hard. They did not have photos of their children to match against the victims, so making positive IDs of the dead was hard.”

Only two voices appear in Fagen’s Post story, both belonging to outside “Amish experts” — one of whom adds, expertly, “I don’t even know if I could begin to comprehend how this [tragedy] might affect those people.” The remainder of Fagen’s piece focuses on perhaps the only thing that could be considered “sexy” about “their” way of life — Rumspringa. “They don’t smoke or drink or have premarital sex,” reports Fagen. “But when teenagers reach 16, they are allowed to leave the community and enter the outside world for a year or more before returning. It’s called rumspringa, German for ‘running around,’ and it’s a taste of forbidden fruit. A girl can shed her plain long dress and bonnet and a boy his suspenders and straw hat for trendy clothes and jeans. Some even have used their rumspringa to experiment with drugs, sex or alcohol and generally indulge in a lifestyle that would otherwise not be tolerated ….”

Nothing naughty in the News’ story, but, in a refreshing flash of self-awareness, Kennedy describes how some residents reacted to the intrusive influx of reporters: “Across from the schoolhouse in the Nickel Mines Auction House, a weathered old barn packed with old chairs, chipped china, a brass grandfather clock and a Victrola, reporters toting a dizzying forest of cameras, microphones and bright lights converged for a briefing by police. In the back, a handful of Amish men and women in their traditional dress gathered quietly. The news of their private tragedy was being broadcast all over the world, but the only way they were going to hear was to attend in person — they have no TVs …. A woman in a white bonnet gaped at the TV cables snaking everywhere. ‘All those wires, all the electricity,’ she said.”

Well, at least the Post’s Fagen didn’t contribute to that “dizzying forest” of reporters.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.