Presswatch

The Medium Is the Motive

If these killers seek recognition, it is available to them because the mass media can be counted on to pay a great deal of attention to their horrific deeds.

By From the February 2013 issue

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If hypocrisy were an intoxicating spirit, Andrew Rosenthal would be a master distiller. A few hours after the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, Bryan Fischer, an official of the American Family Association, tweeted: “Shooters attack an elementary school in CT—another ‘gun-free zone.’ Makes children sitting ducks.” Rosenthal, the New York Times’ editorial page editor, highlighted the message and added his own comment: “Sickeningly quick.”

Rosenthal had a point: Fischer should have been more circumspect. The point about gun-free zones was a pertinent one, but it would have been more tastefully argued a few days later.

Yet Rosenthal and the Times showed no such circumspection. Three hours later Rosenthal sent out a link to a Times editorial, which appeared in the next day’s paper but was published earlier than usual on the web, and which used the massacre as a peg to argue for gun control. “Bloomberg wonders… and so do we… when it WILL be time to do something about gun violence,” he tweeted.

David Frum was even quicker. As soon as the news broke, he tweeted: “Shooting at CT elementary school. Obviously, we need to lower the age limit for concealed carry so toddlers can defend themselves.” The sour sarcasm was especially out of place, and the comment was a bizarre non sequitur. Every school has adults.

Frum’s tweet drew many responses from people who found it offensive. In the afternoon he answered them unrepentantly in a Daily Beast essay:

It’s bad enough to have a gun lobby. It’s the last straw when that lobby also sets up itself as the civility police. It may not be politically possible to do anything about the prevalence of weapons of mass murder. But it damn well ought to be possible to complain about them—and about the people who condone them. 

Of course you can complain about them. And they can complain about you, which is all they did. You can complain back, as you did, and so on and so on. It’s all part of the glorious free marketplace of ideas, albeit not its finest product. But the notion that your complaining is constructive while your detractors’ complaining is murderous is delusional.

This is typical. Every time one of these horrible shooting sprees occurs, countless voices in the media declaim that 1) we need a debate on gun control, and 2) the other side’s views are despicable and stupid. A central reason these gun debates tend to be futile is that gun owners think advocates of gun control will not settle for reasonable restrictions but want to deprive them of Second Amendment rights altogether.

They are right to think so, and Frum’s essay illustrated the point. He noted that earlier in the week, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had struck down Illinois’ absolute ban on carrying concealed weapons. He didn’t mention that the court stayed its order for 180 days to give state legislators time to craft a new law that passes constitutional muster. That would seem an excellent opportunity for advocates of reasonable gun regulations to weigh in on just what they might look like. For Frum, it was just a reminder that those who disagree with him are contemptible: “The [ruling] moved me to revisit some writing I did this summer about the folly of imagining that law-abiding citizens make themselves more safe by owning weapons.”

Maybe there would be fewer mass shootings if there were no Second Amendment. But the same can be said of the First Amendment. A Washington Post story the day after the Connecticut shootings crystallized the point. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Adam Lanza was his name.

Adam P. Lanza, 20, obscure in life, infamous in death.

A really rambunctious kid, as one former neighbor in Newtown, Conn., recalled him, adding that he was on medication. He was the son of an accountant. A family member told investigators that he had a form of autism, a law enforcement official said.

And he will long be remembered.

That suggests to me a fairly simple answer to the vexing question of why people do things like this: They do it for recognition. Given the media frenzies that followed Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and the rest, they have every confidence of getting it.

To suggest such a banal motive is neither to diminish the evil of the crime nor to deny that the killer was mentally ill. Ordinary motives—money, jealousy, revenge, pride—can lead insane people to do monstrous things. One might object that the killer in this case, as killers often do, took his own life and thus is not around to “enjoy” his recognition. But the human desire for recognition consists in substantial part of projecting beyond one’s own death. Whose dreams of fame would not be crushed by the certain knowledge that one would be forgotten immediately after dying?

The point here is that the medium is the motive. If these killers seek recognition, it is available to them because the mass media will inevitably pay a great deal of attention to their horrific deeds. They are, after all, newsworthy, and they do raise important questions of public concern, not only about the availability of weapons and the vulnerability of “gun-free zones,” but also about the treatment of mental illness.

We journalists often proclaim high-mindedly that the public has a right to know—and we’re right. But as in the Garden of Eden, knowledge is dangerous. An industry devoted to serving the public’s right to know gives twisted and evil men the means of becoming known.

This problem is not obviously amenable to a solution, and it certainly is not amenable to a legal one. A regime of media regulation that would be both effective at preventing mass shootings and consistent with the Constitution is no easier to imagine than a regime of gun regulation that would meet the same criteria.

The Times’ editorial, before getting to the inevitable anti-gun talking points, hinted at this moral ambiguity of journalism:

People will want to know about the killer in Newtown, Conn. His background and his supposed motives. Did he show signs of violence? But what actually matters are the children. What are their names? What did they dream of becoming? Did they enjoy finger painting? Or tee ball?

“What actually matters are the children.” A lovely thought, an empty piety. The children had “news value” only because they came to a horrible end. Had they been left alone to grow up, it’s unlikely any of them would ever have come to the attention of the Times editorial page. The editorial omitted the murderer’s name—perhaps a deliberate gesture, and if so, a futile one. Even if you don’t know his name, you know who he is.

Committing journalism is not a wrongful act, and often it is a noble one. But all of us who, in the course of making a living at it, help publicize these horrific acts are in a small way implicated in enabling them. Perhaps those who scapegoat gun-rights supporters do so because they have too much pride to contemplate their own fallen nature.

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.