News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Friday, April 20, 2007

How to turn a massacre into a degradation festival

Monday on the Virginia Tech campus surpassed the blood-filled violence of the most dementedly vicious horror film. If someone submitted a screen treatment of the events that happened there before it happened, the reviewers would say that the violence was so extreme, relentless, and excessive that it did not have the element of plausibility that horror films require to make them effective. Cho Seung-Hui will have a mark on American culture because he escalated actual violence to a level that existed only in the imagination. Unfortunately, he had the motives and ability to make his imagination actual.

The demented horror of that mass shooting, with definite connections to Columbine, takes its place with the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 as events that diminish the freedom that once was the distinguishing mark of American life and replace it with a society consumed by procedures and apparatus for keeping it "secure." Cable television shows have gathered opinions of campus security experts about what to do, and they have advanced the proposal that students should be required to swipe an identification card at the door of each campus building before they can enter the premises. In effect, the idea is to imprison the campus population and organize it around security checks. These experts are so far removed from the purposes of the academic world that it cannot occur to them that such procedures would effectively eliminate the university as it has developed since the Middle Ages. But you can depend upon cable television news to come up with the truly ignorant and stupid.

One would think that people would not want to make one of the most horrific atrocities to ever be experienced in our country more atrocious. But the imaginative cable news media can always be relied on to find a way. Their purpose is to find sub-culprits to blame for what Cho Seung-Hui did, not find out what made him the way he was.

On either CNN or MSNBC Monday evening, the news host was interviewing the president of the VT student body. She asked if he thought that the university administration was remiss in not shutting down the campus after the first shootings and, thus, allowed a two-hour gap for the perpetrator to prepare and launch his final assault. The student body president replied that the focus of the campus was on regrouping its resources, healing, and getting on with its work, not placing blame. The woman repeated her question about six times. The young man refused to be badgered into giving assent to a leading question. However, over the ensuing days, this blame-placing theme became a staple of the television news reports. In other words, the cable news media set an agenda hunted down people who would affirm its supposition that the university misperformed and was negligent. They are still harping on this theme. They did not merely ask a question, which would be legitimate in its own right. They hammered on it until they got the answer they wanted. That is not journalism. It is setting an agenda and propagandizing it.

The president of Virginia Tech is a smart man. He immediately asked the Virginia Governor to set up a panel of qualified people to examine the performance of the University on Monday. We will wait for the report of that panel, and we trust it will include the role the media played in exacerbating this massacre.

Then NBC News received its packet of multi-media statements from Cho Seung-Hui. It immediately turned it over to authorities, but it also prepared the photos and edited the video clips for broadcast. As an old newsman, I firmly believe that all contained in the packet should be released to the public in a news context. NBC put on video clips of Cho addressing the television audience and not to be outdone in the furious scramble for ratings, CNN and the rest of the pack quickly followed. The question raised by the media is whether it was appropriate to let Cho dominate the airways by broadcasting the videos and, therefore, detract from the news of the victims.

The question is an exploitive sham. If the clips were published in a news context, they would not be exploited for their sensational aspects, but presented in a framework of developments that would emphasize the tragedy of Cho and what motivated him, not let him glare at the television viewers with his trapped-rat-like snarl and cast his invectives as if he were a living presence on the camera. The significant choice made by cable news media was to choose sensational television over journalism. As usual, horrific titillation won out over straight journalism. The latter might be found boring.

The families of victims were, according to some reports, further horrified at seeing the killer of the victims receive a public platform that displaced the acknowledgments of the students and professors who were killed while engaging in lofty and inspiring purposes. Still, these same people will want to know and understand what drove Cho to kill them in such a highly-planned, methodical way. Not just the relatives of the victims, but the entire country deserves to have these events reported for the information and understanding of the massacre, not to have it exploited by carping accusations against the authorities and through the badgering of friends, relatives, and campus people to see what outrage can be fomented to keep those suckers out there glued to their television screens.

To add to the tragedy is that mass shootings and bombings are becoming punctuation points that mark the direction our culture is taking. As much has we are repulsed and horrified by Cho, he represents something contained in our culture that produces events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine massacre. There are people in our culture leading desperate, volatile lives, and we do not know how to recognize them or understand them. Cho obviously had mental problems, but like those other perpetrators, he functioned in society up to a point. The very fact that he attended college and did his class work is evidence that he wanted something more at some point than recognition as a bloodthirsty monster.

Timonth McVeigh was executed before we ever found out just what combination of political attitude and personal pathologies drove him. In the Virginia Tech massacre, Cho Seung-Hui turned into a horrific personality. But in their constant attempts to badger witnesses, impose its less-than-intelligent accusations on administrators and officials, and appeal to the basest of human instincts, cabke television news assumes a role of drooling monster right along side of Cho.

Television news lost any claims it ever had to moral probity when it chose to no longer distinguish between news and the purely salacious.

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