I couldn’t stop sobbing.
I pulled off of a Wisconsin highway and into a hospital parking lot, parked and sat alone, thinking about his words.
“This is the only time I’ll ever be in the news. I’m so insignificant,” the Umpqua Community College shooter had said on 4chan the night before gunning down 10 students.
He was well-versed in the school shootings; he knew the risk and the rewards.
“I have noticed that so many people like [the shooter] are alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
Why are these words of young man, America? My stomach turns to think there are others that think this way. But, worse, I know I’ve assisted.
How many times did I hear, “If it bleeds, it leads” in college. And never did I speak out against the formula, the fear-mongering, sociopathic equation that’s been driving journalism for decades. Death, death, death, cute cat video, good night.
I would link to stories about the incident but I can’t find one without the shooter’s identity in it.
“Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter,” John Hanlin, Douglas County Sheriff, said in the aftermath. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act…You will never hear me mention his name.”
No worries, sheriff, we’ll find it, because I believe all Americans have the right to curse someone that does heinous acts of violence by name.
We’ll search for new scapegoats, too, and tear down the old ones we’ve worn out.
I saw this headline: “Everyone blames mental illness for mass shootings. But what if that’s wrong?” And I thought, Vox is going to nail it. It did, to a point, going through a list of other straw men, a history of violence, substance abuse, poverty and access to guns, that have been overlooked of late.
I hung my head, though, because they’ve missed a big contributor. It also happens to be the one that the gunman made blatantly clear was a root cause, the media’s glorification of violence and status as reason people matter.
We are no good until we have the biggest and baddest of everything, we say. Our unrealistic expectations of success put enormous pressure on people and make failing that much harder.
To take from “The Crunch” by Charles Bukowski:
“our educational system tells us
that we can all be
High school students that aren’t the most valuable player on the football team, college-aged students that don’t give into the stereotypes, whether it be binge drinker or bimbo, young adults that don’t have a multimillion dollar startup, humans that are just a bit lost, resort to violence to get attention.
Do you want to be vultures, journalists? Is that what you want? To be someone’s soapbox for chaos?
That’s what we’re teaching people today, in the decisions we make everyday about which story runs and which is killed.
Case in point: I was interviewed by my hometown local news station before I headed out on this trip. The short, positive segment was supposed to air that night, but was bridled because “dumpster baby.”
I might not be fabulous, and maybe the people of Cape Girardeau aren’t particularly enthralling either. And we shouldn’t have to be. We draw political cartoons on bar napkins and get up at the asscrack of dawn to milk cows and take care of the farm; we’re people that forgo paying their mortgage to buy their kid a Christmas gift and college students that are studying to become a myriad of amazing things.
But we don’t see each other on TV. We only see the things they tell us to fear.
We’re an increasingly terrified American population. Fox News has pandered to Republicans fear of Middle Easterners for years, making some never get on an airplane again and others unwilling to help refugees because everyone hates us and we, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, can’t afford it.
I had a 70-something-year-old man tell me a couple days ago he’s afraid to go to Times Square or large sporting events because that would be the prime place for a terrorist attack.
He also tells his granddaughter to stay in the car if she gets in a wreck, because there’s people that will hit her on purpose just to rape and kill a young women. Is that personal experience?
“No, just stuff I’ve read in the news.”
Today is the safest time in history for a human to be alive. We can do nearly anything without the fear of death. But yet a significant number of people do. And they let that fear control them into hunkering down with the “you can’t trust anyone” attitude.
But people eat it up. “The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying,” said Barry Petchesky of The Concourse in an article titled “Reporting Is Ugly.”
I used to excuse the media with that line too, especially when it came to celebrity news. “The only reason media outlets cover Kim Kardashian is because people eat it up. They’re just appeasing their audience. Can you blame them?”
Oh yes, I’m going to blame them. Because, in my mind, a journalist’s job isn’t to appease the masses, it’s to educate the masses.
Journalism has never had a great track record of upstanding work, think Yellow Journalism. But I’d like to think J-school students were aspiring to something better. And if you did, well dammit, you have a degree, use it appropriately.
Those of us in the media business have a responsibility.
This isn’t about gun control, although that would probably help. This isn’t about mental health screenings, although that couldn’t hurt. This is about the news media’s brazen disregard for positioning the news in an effort to manipulate.
Journalism is a public good. It’s like becoming a police officer or a firefighter, you don’t become a reporter because you want to make shitloads of money, you become a reporter to serve the public.
My dream job was always National Geographic, because I wanted to meet people so I could tell everyone else how cool they were. I became a reporter to show people how lovely life is, how refugees are being welcomed into Germany with parades and high-fives. And I became a reporter to uncover public manipulation by the powerful, by politicians, banks, large corporations.
But have we become so beholden to a circumspect news formula so much so that we’ve become no better than they are.
I feel the weight of destroying the lives of 11 people in Umpqua, Oregon along with breaking the hearts of the people that loved them, looked up to them and needed them. My thoughts are with all those recovering, including Chris Mintz, an army vet that rushed the shooter on his son’s sixth birthday. These are the people we should be focusing on.