I felt a little woozy this morning, and I think the cause was the purposefully eerie yet mournful soundtrack that NPR was using to accompany its coverage of Monday’s shootings at Virginia Tech — just a little too tasteful to work on an Ed Wood film, but now welded in my mind to the first half of the special story logo created for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees story reportage: “Massacre.”
I don’t remember the second half of the ad-hoc title, and I suspect CNN doesn’t care as long as I keep tuning in for the up-to-the-minute non-updates.
I also can’t tell you how many times on my morning commute the NPR correspondents reminded me that “we still don’t know who the shooter is.” An hour later we did know: The gunman who killed 32 students and professors before shooting himself was Virginia Tech student Cho Seung-hui. But to paraphrase yet another carefully solemn Public-Radio reporter: We don’t know why, we just know what.
The 24-hour infotainment cycle pioneered by CNN in its early, scrappy days requires this kind of ongoing observation of the obvious — a skill you might well hone covering Thanksgiving Day parades or golf tournaments. “There are students over there simply looking at `a makeshift memorial`, some of them signing their names … ” CNN correspondent Jeanne Meserve told Cooper last night, while behind her students were clearly … standing around and signing a makeshift memorial.
The form manifests itself in other cliches: Firsthand testimonials are repeated ad nauseam. A victim is selected for canonization — in this case 22-year-old Resident Assistant Ryan Clark, by all accounts an outstanding, civic-minded student who may have been shot when he came to the aid of Seung-hui’s first victim. You’ll never get a chance to form your own opinion of his character, or experience your own private grief over the senseless death of a promising young man, because he’s been repurposed as a narrative tool — one of an arsenal of devices to keep you tied to the continuously updating news website of your choice while you’re at work or school.
Which brings us to another media-invented problem: CNN.com, Mysanantonio.com, WOAI.com, etc. are all recycling the same material, the same strangely lit photograph of the shooter. So to compete for eyeballs they’ve got to invent fresh angles without the benefit of hindsight. One of Tuesday morning’s featured NPR segments focused on second-guessing the campus police and officials, who didn’t warn students about the first shooting, which took place around 7:15 a.m., until almost 9:30 a.m., by which time the second shooting was underway.
Is it the media’s role to examine and critique the performance of public officials? Of course. But because a serious story was rushed, the report essentially consisted of students saying, yes, maybe it would have made a difference, and officials saying, please understand, we were still gathering evidence for what looked like a domestic-violence incident. No context, no comparable cases, no way for the listener to do anything but make their own emotional call — just the mainstream media’s usual he-said/she-said coverage.
It all adds up to a real form of pollution — call it pollution of our common ground. A grave tragedy has taken place but — despite the fact that it is (as we’re constantly reminded by our news correspondents) the largest shooting of its kind — not a tragedy unique to America. Even before the victims are mourned and buried, we will take up crucial questions of campus security, mental-health screenings, and that constitutional hot button, gun control. Some useful news, also from CNN: one of the guns used by Hueng-sui may have been bought the Friday before the murders, and Virginia is among the three most lax states when it comes to gun ownership. Perhaps it would serve the public’s need best if the major news outlets dropped the round-the-clock pseudo-drama, and stuck to the facts — tools that citizens can then use to address the fallout and, if possible, prevent another Columbine or Virginia Tech.
If you think I’m understimating the contribution the major media conglomerates could make to this conversation, remember that these are the same folks who raised barely a peep when our post-9/11-mad government threw out habeas corpus and manufactured the WMD lie.
Imagine a world in which Alberto Gonzales’s upcoming Congressional testimony (postponed because of the shootings, and in danger of garnering even less media attention now) was accorded the same drama and intense, layered coverage as the Virginia Tech murders, while the Virginia Tech victims’ friends and families were left to mourn in private. You can use your media consumption to make that world a reality.