Amid the news Friday of a record drop in the stock market and a missile attack on a U.S.-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf, the nation's attention seemed to be riveted instead on an abandoned well in West Texas and the plight of 18-month-old Jessica McClure.
"It had all the elements a story--be it a novel or a folk tale--should have," suggested Jerald Jellison, a professor of psychology at USC. "It had a central character, supporting characters, and it had a plot that involved love and danger and conflict."
Jellison, who said he found himself caught up in the three-day rescue drama, explained that "how and whether the stock market will recover is complicated. But here you had a problem that was easily understood, and with an apparent solution that was clear."
Emery Bontrager, executive assistant to the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services, said the situation in Texas "touches everyone in a personal way. It could be your little girl or your sister. You've probably held such a child in your arms."
Dr. Alfred Coodley, clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry at the USC School of Medicine, said:
"In general, people will always have interest in a helpless victim, particularly if that person had no responsibility for being the victim.
"Every human being has to some degree been a victim of something in his or her life, and therefore automatically identifies with a victim."
Rita Roberts, a professor of American history at Scripps College, theorized that Americans are overwhelmed by political and social issues. The situation of the child, on the other hand, was a personal event that all could identify with.
"This required immediate resolution," Roberts said. "Americans are a people of action. They don't easily handle situations that require long-term solutions.
'Pulled Us Together'
"It pulled us all together. It helped alleviate the strain of other problems, personal and collective."
Dr. Marvin Marsh, assistant medical director at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, pointed out that there is a strong identification of all human beings with children.
The nation's horrified fascination "is rooted in the experiences of our own childhood," Marsh said, "and has to do with the issues of dependence and independence."
"When there is a human being in a status of dependency--and that person is clearly defined as an infant or child--there comes forth that need for control through rescue, and the survival of that person."
Interest in the story was such that two local television stations, KHJ-TV (Channel 9) and KTTV (Channel 11), interrupted their regular programming all day Friday with coverage of the rescue attempt.
At Channel 11, which did special reports on the situation every half hour, the vice president for Fox News said the story had wide appeal. "My newsroom switchboard has gotten a lot of people inquiring," said Steve Blue. " . . . The only thing of late I can compare it to (in interest) is the earthquake."
Channel 9 cut into its scheduled programming with live coverage Friday whenever rescuers started bringing up the cable from the shaft dug to extract the little girl.
Executive producer Bill Northup said that his station was still presenting news of other important stories, but that this tale of a little girl was in many ways easier to communicate than more complex stories.
Bryce Nelson, director of the school of journalism at USC, thought the element of suspense was crucial.
"One of the important elements is that it's continuing . . . . " he said. "Most of the great events have happened by the time we learn about them. All stories which involve human life where we don't know the outcome are very gripping."