America’s Venus in Furs

Comedian Patton Oswald posted a compelling video on the afternoon of July 20th following the early morning shooting inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. In the video clip, British journalist Charlie Brooker chronicles, with justifiable cynicism, the media response to Germany’s horrific school shooting in March of 2009, in which a young man took guns to school in a Columbine inspired attack that left 16 people dead. Brooker’s disdain centered on the media’s treatment of the attacks, and in the piece he included footage of a television interview with a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Park Dietz, who responded to the newscaster’s questions about how such attacks might be avoided with a scathing indictment of the sort of news program on which he was presently appearing.

Dr. Dietz listed the ways in which the media’s response to such catastrophes feeds into the very violence that it claims to abhor, saying “If you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring, don’t have photographs of the killer, don’t make this 24/7 coverage.” Then, perhaps because Dietz didn’t want to merely provide complaints without solutions, he further explained, “Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of antihero, do localize this story to the affected community, and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.”

Dr. Dietz’s remarks were so jarring both to his interviewer and his audience because he described a set of practices so uncharacteristic of the media’s treatment of such events as to be altogether alien and uncomfortable. Because whether the mass media, and especially cable news networks, intend to or not, they unabashedly glamorize and venerate the violence they report and hoist to the seat of celebrity the perpetrators of such acts. And while we as consumers might be conditioned to it, this sort of sensationalist coverage feeds the insensate broodings of unhinged outcasts desperate for the sort of attention that will imbue them with a sense of authority.

Whenever killers in these moments are made the focus of an entertainment-inspired newscast replete with ominous music stings, floating black and white photographs of the killer and plenty of flashing police lights and grieving families, the killers become maestros conducting the ensuing drama with demoniac charisma, piquing the viewing audience’s interest with their superficially enthralling persona. And in the midst of all of this glitz and glamour, we consumers tend to overlook the fact that these murderers are little more than sad and wholly uninteresting aberrations with serious psychological disorders. The media’s glamorization was particularly revolting in 1999 during Columbine, it was equally repugnant in the wake of Virginia Tech, and it is presently a redoubling of disgust in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado, shootings.

On the evening of July 19th the media was languishing in the doldrums of a banal presidential campaign characterized by a substance-less, Twitter-fed drama of call and response pugilism. And cable news showed no sign of crediting its audience with the intellectual capacity to endure a discussion of topics relevant to the nation’s future—topics such as the inherent corruption of a political process fed by money and private interests, a financial industry that has operated with increasing impunity from governmental oversight for the past thirty years, a divergent economic inequality and a failing healthcare system that despite marginal reforms remains largely dysfunctional. And so the opportunity to descend upon Aurora, Colorado, with an army of cameramen ready to capture all of the flashing lights, yellow tape, hysterical screams and shedding tears in the aftermath of one lone psychotic’s rampage inside of a movie theater could not be allowed to pass unheralded by the media’s lavish attention.

But sticking cameras in people’s grieving faces, wildly speculating about apparent motives or clinical mental states and camping out on the parkways alongside the shooting site with satellite news vans does nothing but convey to the next unstable outcast that the blight of their isolation might be mitigated by a similarly heinous act. Television news becomes a reality competition program soliciting auditions from psychopathic loners vying for the title of America’s next cause célèbre. And despite the contention that its reports are concerned with respect for the shooter’s victims, the media’s appeals to a sense of collective empathy belies the reality of the ratings boosts they eagerly embrace as a result of these events, especially when the shooter has a scintillating back-story and a freakish appearance made for television news.

And this is how mass media is ultimately beholden to the sadism of the killers whose images they venerate in their reach for ratings. The killers represent Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs to cable news’s groveling, masochistic lust for blood and pain. Grinding their heel into their subject’s neck, the killers exhibit the authority to bend their news media slaves to their capricious will.

Dr. Dietz’s advice might better inform the media’s approach to these events in the interest of protecting not just today’s victims and their families from the cable news spotlight but also the world community at large from the next maladjusted social reject who might take arms against a theater of innocents in the interest of becoming, if not bigger than Jesus, then at least bigger than Snooki. The media can do better. Let’s start with expunging the bloodlust in favor of relevant and meaningful newscasts, or at least expunging Wolf Blitzer in favor of another hot weather girl.

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