Way back in the antediluvian era of American media, there was a daytime TV offering called Queen for a Day. Many consider it the early forerunner of at least some reality television genres - the sort that focus on family tragedies, personal agonies and other assorted heartrending crises. Each episode featured four contestants vying for the "most miserable" or "most pitiable" distinction. The dubious winner's bitter lot was rewarded with big-prize giveaways. It was up to the audience to judge which of the four unfortunates was closer to rock bottom and therefore worthy of their sympathy. That sympathy was grotesquely measured by an "applause meter." The loudest clapping presumably meant that the circumstances unfolded in one of the competing sad stories were the harshest. All these decades later, the Queen for a Day format - more lurid and exploitative than ever - thrives shamelessly in this country. Staged on an incomparably larger scale, playing to a nationwide gallery and for far higher stakes, it's the most manipulative tearjerker in our real-life existential drama. Nevertheless, few of us recognize it for what it is, and even fewer dare say so. It's not easy to even whisper criticism of hostage Gilad Schalit's family or the opportunists who feed on its despair for their own ulterior motives. No sane person would want to be in Noam and Aviva Schalit's shoes. That, coupled with natural sympathy for their 1,000-day torment, shields them from disapproval. Because we all wish them well, we also place them on an enshrined pedestal. But, perhaps ill-advised by cynical self-seekers or bolstered by the outpouring of compassion, the snatched soldier's parents opted to risk the above-reproach status which fellow Israelis lovingly granted them. They themselves opted to participate in a Queen for a Day-like spectacle, to press for instant and full payment of every last bit of the exorbitant ransom demanded by Hamas terrorists for their son, never mind any other consideration. Thereby they pitted themselves against the bearers of other, perhaps greater sorrows. We, the general public, were involuntarily drafted to serve on the panel of adjudicators in this bizarre Queen for a Day takeoff. The Schalits, egged on and abetted by opinion-molders, set up a protest tent outside the prime minister's residence to clamor for Gilad's immediate liberation, implying that Israeli higher-ups hold the key to his freedom and/or are to blame for his continued captivity. From rival tents nearby, the parents of Hamas atrocity victims sent out pleas that their children's murderers not be let loose. They warned that emptying prisons of the most heinous of convicts would reduce justice and scrupulous due process to utter mockery; that arch-villains returned to circulation will shed more blood; that their torchbearers will learn they can butcher Jews with impunity; that in the future, soldiers will be loath to risk life and limb to apprehend wanted miscreants because it's only a matter of time before these mortal foes are out the revolving door again. AS IN Queen for a Day, each contending narrative was compelling and could potentially tug our heartstrings. But though the public was cast as the jury, it had little chance to weigh the cases impartially. No effort was spared to influence, prejudice and instill unbridled favoritism beforehand, sabotaging any fair assessment. This game episode was hardly on the up-and-up. No objective observer, the media overtly became an overactive player themselves. They not only championed the Schalits campaign for our minds and hearts, they hyped it. They orchestrated a sensationalist, circulation-boosting, ratings-grabbing onslaught geared to brainwash for profit - both political and commercial - and distort the odds. No deeper yellow ever tinted our newsprint or boob tubes. Four-fifths of Ma'ariv's page one was devoted to a pretend letter from Gilad to the government. Unabashedly splashed on Yediot Aharonot's front page was a selection of Gilad's childhood photos to crank up the naive masses' proven susceptibility to kitsch. Nothing of the sort was done for the terror victims. No tabloid featured pictures of young Shvuel Schijveschuurder's father Mordechai, mother Tzira, sister Ra'aya (14), brother Avraham (four) and sister Hemda (two). They were all slain in the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem on August 9, 2001. In all, that suicide-bombing took 15 innocent lives, seven of them children. Ahlam Tamimi, who escorted the bomber to the targeted eatery, and Abdallah Barghouti, who engineered this and other massacres (in all claiming 67 lives) top Hamas's list of hundreds of convicts it seeks to spring in return for Gilad. Shvuel came out to demonstrate against their release. At the time, premier Ariel Sharon personally promised him that under no condition would these mass-murderers be allowed out. BUT OUR PRESS is unimpressed. The dead are gone. Gilad is news. He might maybe be saved. Nothing else need count, including the interests of any member of the collective who may be the next to pay for yet another misguided swap. In 1985 three soldiers, abducted by terror linchpin Ahmed Jibril, were exchanged for 1,150 convicted terrorists, including Kozo Okamoto, perpetrator of 1972's infamous airport massacre. In their book Intifada, Ehud Ya'ari and the late Ze'ev Schiff determined that "over a third of all those set free in the Jibril deal renewed terrorist activity within a year. The rest joined after the eruption of the intifada's first wave of hostilities... Jibril crowed, justly, that his transaction sowed the intifada's seeds." But neither those already in the grave nor as yet nameless candidates for future early graves matter. Celebrities matter. They arrived in droves to "strengthen" the Schalits (and hog a little limelight). Pilgrimages by politicians out to score a few popularity points were prominently reported. Protagonists of previous exchange cliffhangers - the Goldwassers, Regevs and Arads - showed up and the sentimentality surged. Nothing could surpass this - not even the March 15 terrorist ambush-murder of two traffic cops. By Ha'aretz and Ma'ariv standards, they merited only obligatory marginalized mention, while day after day the Schalits were accorded outsized banner headlines. Things got so oppressive that for a while the victims' kin pulled up stakes and folded their tents. They felt they failed to affect us. According to the skewed applause meter, the Schalits emerged unbeatable winners. Yet Noam and Aviva went home empty-handed - at least temporarily. In yesteryear's show, they would have been crowned like royals to the exuberant accompaniment of "Pomp and Circumstance," draped in red velvet robes, given a dozen long-stemmed roses, plus junkets, a fully-paid night on the town and goodies galore. In our here and now, they violated all haggling rules of this region's ruthless Levantine bazaar. They emboldened the kidnappers, raised their asking price and gave them incentive to nab more hostages. Distraught parents may ignore such gut-wrenching truths, but any government would be recklessly remiss if it did.