Tragic School Shootings Bring Out a Certain Type of Media Misery Merchant -- Like This One Who Just Pitched Me

I don't think I'm much better than other media tragedy merchants. But at least I'm not sending out PR pitches inspired by the Connecticut shooting today. Let's discuss.
Publish date:
December 14, 2012
media, school shootings

You know that person who, when a tragedy happens, seems to almost perk up with excitement and validation that:

  • Humankind is pretty much fucked.
  • He or she KNEW FIRST and gets the ego trip of letting you in on the jaw-dropping knowledge.
  • Grief-trolling is now allowed.
  • Everyone is now allowed to fake-try-to-solve things by using the tragedy as an excuse to pore over the gory details.
  • The clutchy sad clusterfuck of news coverage will also allow him or her to show off his AGGRESSIVE EMPATHY AND INSIGHT AND RELATING.

Or, as happened today, one perky publicist actually PITCHED ME with the tag of the shooting as a NEWS PEG. Classy. Reminds me of when one idiot hack pitched someone at The Post with the death of beloved reporter Braden Keil as a news peg for cancer awareness. Nope.

Part of my revulsion to this phenomenon comes from working in journalism for most of my life. The story that I often tell is of picking up a sassy young reporter at the airport that I had worked with at the Des Moines Register who was in town interviewing at the Chicago Tribune. The Columbine shooting had just happened. The universal reaction was one of devastation and horror and grief. But her? Her eyes were wet with gleaming enthusiasm when I met her at the gate. "Did you hear?" she said. "Oh, man, I would LOVE to cover this. What a GREAT story. I mean, one or two dead, I'm kind of past that in my career. But this -- this is fantastic."

Good God.

She also invented details in stories to make them, you know, better (it was awkward when a casino called to say that they in fact did not offer the game she had given a particularly wrenching turn-of-phrase to in her story on the loneliness of the human condition), and she made sure to call every small town a "burg" because you know, she was a REALLY GOOD WRITER.

I absolutely empathize with the way that stories can be viewed as almost the ingredients for an oatmeal cookie recipe, just by virtue of the desensitization of the job -- let's see, the crying victim talking about the frailty of life is the flour, the gruff police chief is the eggs, the shocked neighbors who knew and are "shocked and bewildered" by the alleged perps are the brown sugar.

But the dishonesty and faux we're-really-getting-to-the-bottom-of-this of the entire devastation charade can become stomach turning. Whenever I was doing a vulture-y story, I tried to call it out to the people that I was talking to, apologizing for myself and my profession as well.

I actually love it when people call me out on my own reportorial bullshit. I once had a friend who I was trying to convince to tell me some terrific anecdote he had about touring with Britney Spears, and I said solemnly, "It would be great to get her side of the story out there and spread awareness of--" My friend interrupted me, laughing, "Wow, that was an amazing change that just happened in you there. That was good. I enjoyed that." Yes. He called it.

I think what I find so offensive is the incredibly aggressive spectator-like, almost-celebratory sermonizing and cataloguing without almost any action that will change things in the future. (Which, hi. This article. Guilty. Way guilty.) Like, for example, any talk show roundtable ever. Excuses to "discuss the big issues" when really it's just an excuse to coo over the lurid ghoulish details. I've done it. Anyone in media has. Anyone who consumes media has, really.

I always say that the reason that sex and race stories do so well in the media is that everyone wants to talk about these topics and finally, a Newsweek cover gives them the excuse to do so. Or it did. I guess Time will serve that purpose now.

It's not that there isn't an importance to telling some of these stories, although newspapers have debated about even putting a school shooting on the front page -- and I 100% agree that the focus should be on the victims, not on finally giving the killer a form of celebrity he or she might crave. But I also think there is a lot of truth to the criticism of media and culture that "if it bleeds it leads" (which is a hack old phrase, but, hey, it fits), because at the end of the day, much of the grief-troll "Nancy Grace"-style reporting is meaningless and, oftentimes, quite disgusting.

It's like the after-church coffee hour gossip where the old ladies are despairing of the lost morals of youth, but really they just want to talk shit about how the young woman in choir is wearing more makeup and a shorter skirt than they think is appropriate. I so prefer honesty. I have so much more respect for the little old lady who says, "By goodness, I think that young woman is a slut, and God will smite her," rather than the fake-despairing of the failings of the community.

Obviously, a person who is a mass murderer is a sick psychopath. Disgusting. A blight on humankind. But at what point does analyzing every single detail of a person's life and preference and dating life just turn into a "Hunger Games"-style porno showcase of mourning and despair?

Interestingly, I actually have a huge respect and appreciation for diligent crime reporting. Edna Buchanan is my favorite. She won a Pulitzer for her crime coverage at the Miami Herald when cocaine was in its heyday in the city in the 80s. Her writing was lurid and detail-packed but sans the grief-trolling idiocy. At a certain point, I just think that a "discussion of the issues" simply becomes a Roman Empire gladiator-style circle jerk about the "bad guys."

What do I want to know instead?

I want to know what can I do specifically to prevent something else like this from happening. Action. I want to memorialize victims whose lives were lost. Tribute. I want to know how I can help the families who were affected. Charity. I want people to be scrutinized when checkpoints in a system failed. Accountability.

But the "Toddlers & Tiaras" pageantry of crime coverage (a TV producer comparing the visual of one victim crying versus one who is not) rings so false to me. It was my same problem with the movie version of "American Psycho." At a certain point, the satire bled through into violence-against-women porn. I'm not into snuff films, thanks.

None of this will likely change, I realize. The coverage and the human desire to hivemind flock to and discuss every damned irrelevant bloody steel-wreckage detail of a car crash or a school shooting will always be rewarded when eyeballs are tuning in. But it might. It really might. Because we live in the Age of Transparency. TV is changing. All of media is. Audiences can hardly stand to watch the classic sitcom format anymore. They're fake. Contrived. People today like real. They like raw. And they like honest.

I like to imagine that somewhere there is a reporter being approached by a producer from "Nancy Grace" in Connecticut right now, saying, "What's that? You want my story, you say? Please make a donation to the gun control movement, go fuck yourself, and leave me and my community alone. All best." Door slam.

That would make me happy.

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