Over 30 years ago, 18 month old Jessica McClure fell down an abandoned well in Midland, Texas. Her mother, Reba "Cissy" McClure, was watching her at Jessica’s aunt’s house, which also operated as a daycare. Jessica was playing with four other children when Cissy briefly left Jessica to answer a phone call inside the house. When the children started screaming, Cissy came back out to discover Jessica had fallen 22 feet down an abandoned well.
In 1987, Americans united to watch the events unfold in real time on the nation’s first 24 hour news network, CNN. Without question or doubt or finger pointing or fear mongering, people rallied around the McClure family.
Every now and then, a reporter catches up with Jessica McClure (now Morales) to talk to her about her ordeal. One quote she gave the New York Times has always stuck with me, “It didn’t affect me the way it affected other people. I lived it, but I didn’t watch it.”
If the Baby Jessica rescue occurred in 2019, how would it affect other people across the nation and how would the media and social media cover it? Given how much has changed in the way we communicate and judge parents, I have a good idea of how this national event would have played out today.
The Baby Jessica incident was made for today's 24 hour news cycle. (Although CNN did cover Baby Jessica's rescue at the time, its coverage would be nowhere near as intense as it would be today.) CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc. would have self-proclaimed experts, with no direct connection to anyone involved, giving interviews about the conditions, her health, how Jessica was feeling, what she is aware of, what the first responders were feeling, and any other possible detail. Interviewees would consist of anyone with the tiniest self-proclaimed connection to the McClure family -- relatives, coworkers, high school friends, former teachers, etc. Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper would be constantly flashing computerized simulations of the structure of the well and Jessica’s and emergency personnel’s exact location. Joe Scarborough would be interrupting Mika Brzezinski to try to connect this incident to a Congressional failure on well safety. Fox News would air a few conspiracy theories as to how Jessica got down there or if she was even down there at all. Nancy Grace would gleefully scrutinize the McClures’ teenage marriage and parenting skills, while demanding that Cissy McClure be immediately arrested and prosecuted for harming her child. Every network would be running a Baby Jessica clock that showed how long she had been in the well.
Social media would explode with all the predictable content that frequently surrounds national events. Fake fundraising requests would take over news feeds. There would be a race to come up with cutesy hashtags, such as #WeAreJessica, #FreeJessica, and, of course, #EverybodysBaby. Available pictures of Jessica would be posted as profile pictures instead to demonstrate concern. At least one person in America would be fired from his job for making an insensitive joke or comment on social media about Baby Jessica. Twitter would have multiple accounts floating conspiracy theories, requests for thoughts and prayers, thousands of users claiming they are friends with the McClures, and extreme public displays of grief.
Editorial boards and opinion columnists nationwide would be publicly pondering who is to blame for Baby Jessica falling down the well. Is it the teenage wife and mother who shouldn't have briefly left four other children unattended to answer a phone? Is it the two teenagers who dropped out of high school to marry? Is it the private daycare run out of someone’s home? Is it the lack of government oversight of an open well or is it too many government regulations of other things that caused an open well to be neglected?
In 1987, the nation recognized that what happened to Jessica McClure was an accident and could happen to any busy parent. The nation rallied around the McClure family with love, support, sympathy, and hope.
In 2019, the 21st century style of nonstop communication coupled with increasing scrutiny and judgement on parents, particularly mothers, would make the Baby Jessica rescue a completely different narrative, especially for Cissy McClure. There would be love, support, sympathy, and hope, of course, but there would also be vast amounts of shame, anger, accusations, and doubt.
Although parenting has made many strides over the last 30 years, one of the major elements we lost was empathy for each other. We replaced it with harsh and immediate judgment because we secretly fear a tragedy could happen to our children.
Empathy needs to make a comeback.