As I watch the what seems like millionth day of evening news beginning with a new story related to the Boston Marathon bombing, I'm reminded of this blog post that I read by Mano Singham after Newton on whether or not the manner in which the media covers these killings contributes to motivating these killers to act, and to do so in as flashy a way as possible.
But is such massive coverage itself part of the problem? Does it in fact actually encourage similar future actions by giving potential killers, often people who feel isolated and unappreciated, the feeling that they can achieve fame and immortality by going out in a blaze of glory, guns blazing, a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?The media have adopted a fairly choreographed playbook in the aftermath of these tragedies. Report on the perpetrators. Report on the victims. Leave no stone unturned. All the while never letting up in the intensity of the reporting.
I know that the average person would live a happier life knowing a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombing would never happen again, but I wonder if this also goes for large news networks, who seem to devote a significant amount of resources reporting on these tragedies, and for that matter, must benefit in the ratings that come along with these stories. One wonders if they have formed a symbiotic relationship with the Tsarnaevs of the world, albeit unwittingly.
The network channels ran at minimum hour-long specials on the night of the Watertown manhunt. They had everything one might expect from a summer blockbuster. Sounds of gunfire, brigades of police officers, flashing lights, and never, ever, forgetting the suspense. That is not including the other hours and hours worth of coverage by these news outlets at other points before and since.
One wonders if the average viewer is really that interested in the biographies of these criminals. Does delving this deeply into the workings of these specific killers really provide insight that might help prevent more tragedies like these in the future? Or is this simply more theater, evening entertainment, at the expense of inspiring more youngsters seeking infamy like Adam Lanza, James Holmes, and the Tsarnaevs?
In the same blog post Mano quotes Roger Ebert, which came in the wake of Columbine, however I still find it indelibly poignant even after so many years.
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.