We're going through a crippling recession. The CIA is under fire over its interrogation techniques. And U.S. policy toward Cuba may be about to change. But the most-followed news story of late? A tale of pirates on the high seas.
Some who study pop culture suspect that's at least partly a reflection of America's longtime fascination with scurvy buccaneers and swashbuckling cutthroats.
"Pirates! It's not as good as aliens, but close," says Marty Kaplan, professor at the Norman Lear Center of the University of Southern California, which studies the impact of entertainment on society.
"Captain Hook, Treasure Island, the Disney ride, Blackbeard," Kaplan muses. "If we thought of them or talked about them as punks, thugs, thieves or kidnappers, they wouldn't stir our blood or promise a good yarn."
Asked which story they followed more closely last week than any other, 34 percent of Americans surveyed named the Somali pirate saga, in which sea captain Richard Phillips was rescued by U.S. Navy snipers after five days held hostage in a lifeboat. The economy came in second at 27 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for People & The Press.
In fact, only two stories this year have surpassed the economy in any week: The inauguration of Barack Obama, and the dramatic ditching of that US Airways jet in the Hudson River by its cool-headed pilot, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.
What's the reason behind the pirate fascination? The poll didn't ask, but the story clearly shares a crucial element with the US Airways saga: what's been perceived as quick-thinking heroism from men thrown into unexpected and treacherous circumstances.
It also involves Americans — perhaps a major part of the explanation, since Somali pirates have been attacking foreign ships for several years, with U.S. newspaper readers and TV audiences paying little attention.
And certainly the media, particularly cable, have devoted huge chunks of time to the story. An analysis by Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism found the pirate saga just slightly behind the economy in amount of coverage, with other stories lagging far behind.
Of course, pirates really are "just your basic thugs," says Mike Carraway, exhibit designer at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, N.C., where workers are excavating what is believed to be the 18th-century wreck of Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge. "We've for some reason romanticized them."
Fascination with outlaws
The proof: Any museum can be assured of visitors with a pirate exhibit. "It's like dinosaurs, or the Titanic," Carraway says. "They're our aces in the hole."
Historian Marcus Rediker, author of several books on pirates, says they were folk heroes long before they became staples of children's literature. "They're outlaws, like Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde," Rediker says. "And being an outlaw is a very popular thing in American popular culture."
Later, of course, pirates became an object of popular fantasy, from "Treasure Island" to Captain Blood to Captain Hook to Captain Jack Sparrow, portrayed by Johnny Depp in the three hugely successful "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.
"They're always kind of roguish in these depictions, not bad so much as saucy, mischievous rather than sinister," says Jay Wolpert, one of three screenwriters on the first film in the trilogy. "They use rapiers. That's a lot more romantic than an AK-47."
"Of course, they're not like any of today's real pirates," says Wolpert, except for one thing: "They're interested in money."
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