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Peter Dykstra: Shark porn

Lurking behind the clickbait, a story of risk and reality.

Our story starts 103 years ago – not only before basic cable, but before Hollywood became Ground Zero for showbiz. The situation begins at the Jersey Shore.


On July 1, 1916, a 25-year-old man bled to death, pulled to shore in front of the Engleside Hotel in Beach Haven, a popular getaway spot for Philadelphians. Six days later and 45 miles to the north, a hotel bell captain was dismembered, and newspapers began to take notice. On July 12, a young boy and his attempted rescuer died in a tidal creek.

Sharks as man-eaters became a phenomenon for the first time, and shark-hunting became a macho competition. And it was literally overkill, since humans kill roughly a million sharks for every one human killed by sharks. More on that later.

In 1974, Peter Benchley, took the 1916 frenzy and added a fictionalized version of Frank Mundus, a party-boat skipper who fancied himself as the Captain Ahab of sharks. "Jaws" was such an instant best-seller that one only had a year to wait for the movie. It was a box office blockbuster.

As the story goes, young director Steven Spielberg tried to beg off the project. And years later, Benchley revealed his regrets about the whole thing, insisting that he loved sharks and had no intention of promoting their demise.

Here's where basic cable comes in. For all of the fierce majesty and mystery of the ocean's alpha predators, programmers at the Discovery Channel found the unvarnished truth: The handful of humans annually killed by sharks are, far and away, the most interesting things about these cold-eyed beasts.

In 1988, Shark Week was born.

Shark Week is in its fourth decade as a smash hit for cable TV. So much so that the National Geographic Channel has spawned a rival, SharkFest. Both start later this month. They are reliable ratings giants, exploiting and distorting the relationship between us and them. They are, according to many shark advocates, the moral equivalent of shark pornography – providing cheap thrills for the audience by exploiting the stars of the show.

The best way to way to quantify sharks' risk to humanity is to invoke absurd-but-true numbers. My favorite comparison involves Doritos. Or Coke, or Hershey bars. I wrote about this for CNN years ago. The Consumer Product Safety Commission tallied up the number of vending machine deaths each year from 1977 to 2005. These silent, unassuming killers took 37 lives when people shook the machine, trying to jolt loose a stuck coin or a bag of a slow killer like Cheetos, only to have the machine topple over on top of them.

An argument could also be made that you're safer in the water than you are staying on the beach. During a five-year period in the early 2000's, more people died when the giant sand hole they were digging on the beach collapsed smothering them than died at the hands of sharks (if sharks had hands).

The slaughter of sharks continues, estimated by some to top 100 million a year. The majority are killed for a vanity product, shark fin soup. Once a status-symbol delicacy in China, it's grown dramatically — and tragically – as China's booming economy makes the soup more affordable to millions.

Multiple shark species have plummeted to less than 10 percent of their original numbers, due to a fishery practice that lops the dorsal fin off the shark and tosses the dying animal overboard.

To give some modest credit, Discovery Channel and Nat Geo have incorporated some real-world shark information into their bloodfests. The human equivalent would be sticking a Merchant & Ivory film in the middle of a week-long Debbie Does Dallas marathon.

Not so much for the SyFy Channel's Sharknado movie series, in which cyclones suck sharks out of the ocean and drop them to menace humans on city streets.

And The Meg, a 2018 box office smash about a giant prehistoric shark-ish terror, is already birthing its first sequel.

An unfortunate parallel can be found in broadcast news, which slathers coverage of drought, wildfires, floods and hurricanes while skirting even an occasional mention of climate change as a likely enabler of them all. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America tracks this ongoing journalistic failure.

The tagline from the "Jaws" movie and its three sequels was "just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water." It fascinates us. Even though the reality, with sea level rise, the water is actually coming for us, and many news organizations remain clueless.

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