Good, Evil, Mass Murder, Mass Publicity — and the Bill of Rights
Does the First Amendment play any role at all in the outbreak of these horrific shootings in this country?
I won’t name him because it’s what he wanted. As the details pile up, as the Facebook posts and the FBI missteps and the school administrators and the mental health experts and parents and neighbors and classmates pile up, we will still not be able to comprehend the true nature of the kind of evil that was perpetuated by a very deranged young man in Florida last week.
But one thing is certain: The media have been in a full-out freakout over the NRA and the GOP the past few days, with no end in sight. Don Lemon of CNN all but blamed the deaths of the students on Republicans, accusing our nation’s lawmakers of essentially having blood on their hands — and of being bought and owned by their gun benefactors, the NRA.
The same with Chris Cuomo and the crew at CNN, Rachel Maddow and the crew at MSNBC, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and the late-night wannabe cable hosts masquerading as comedians, the big network morning shows, the ladies on “The View” — and the rest of the mainstream media.
Jimmy Kimmel was particularly crude about President Donald Trump, accusing him of being mentally ill. He went on to make ugly remarks about “alleged” Christians for not caring about dead children because they offered up only their prayers. Kimmel didn’t seem to understand that good Christians on all sides of the gun debate believe in the power of prayer.
Many good and decent Americans simply don’t believe that tinkering around the edges of gun control will stop these mass murders in our schools, any more than tinkering around the edges of the First Amendment will — or the Fourth, Fifth and Six Amendments.
Let’s start with the freedom of the press, a right we all care about in this country. It’s one that journalists, columnists, pundits, comedians, and the rest of the media gaggle really care about, too. Has even a single media participant — a pundit or writer or anchor — pondered the notion that these mostly young, deranged men got exactly what they wanted when camera crews and journalists came out of the woodwork to cover their crimes? That when these young men murdered all of those innocents, what they really were after was a big stage? What they really wanted was to leave this earth in a blaze of glory? With the world — the entire world — focused on them and their gruesome acts for days at a time?
Don’t take my word for it. Take the words of the deranged 26-year-old gunman who snuffed out the lives of nine innocent human beings before taking his own life on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Oregon, back in 2015. That mass murderer provided some real insight into the minds of the young men involved in what is a disturbing trend in America: mass-shooter suicides. And that’s what many of these are, these mass shootings. They are suicides that would not be big national stories without a body count that included innocents killed in movie theaters, churches, and schools.
To judge from the shooter’s own words, they are mass shootings that might not have happened at all had there been no prospect of mass-media coverage. Here’s what he had to say about another deranged gunman, the man who took the lives of two journalists in Roanoke, Virginia, before taking his own: “On an interesting note, I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are,” the soon-to-be-infamous gunman from Oregon posted on a popular website.
He wasn’t finished: “A man who was known by no one is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
Why didn’t the media run those words on an endless crawl, and call on themselves to limit their own First Amendment rights? Or at least spend some time really talking — really thinking — about the implications of that killer’s words?
That post has long been removed, but the killer’s words linger. The fact is, these deranged young men are staging their own snuff films, taking innocents along with them, with the mass media playing the role of co-producer. This is the plain truth, whether the media like it or not. They are delivering the very attention that these deranged men long for — and count on.
It’s the very attention only the media can deliver on a mass scale.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for the media to examine their own role in all of this. They prefer to spend endless hours blaming the Second Amendment, law-abiding gun owners, the National Rifle Association, and the GOP, running endless hours of attacks against all of them without even a pretense of balance.
The media talk endlessly about the Second Amendment, responsible gun ownership, and gun control, but little about the First Amendment, responsible media ownership, and media self-control.
The media are not particularly well-regarded these days. Public trust is at an historic low. Millennials, according to a recent study, rank the media as more untrustworthy than Congress. There are lots of reasons. Take Ferguson. With little in the way of evidence, the media descended on the small town in Missouri. A local incident, not yet resolved, had become an international story, and why? Because the media decided it was symptomatic of a larger narrative about police and the lives of African-Americans.
At some points during the unrest on the streets of Ferguson, a good friend of mine who was there told me there were more journalists on the streets than protesters. When the fires erupted and chaos ensued, many in the media seemed excited about it, as if they were rooting for a city to burn.
Ironically, the presence of the mass media just might have been the reason a city nearly burned. One thing is certain: A city aflame is a great story, and gets great ratings. The protests eventually died down, and the reporters who descended on the St. Louis suburb in the name of helping the people there were off to chase the next sensational story in some other American town. The people of Ferguson were left to clean up the mess — a mess from which that city is still recovering.
One of the heroes in that Oregon mass shooting, Sheriff John Hanlin, knows all too well the role the media play in so many news events. He refused to give the media what it hoped for. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought with this horrific and cowardly act,” Hanlin told the press about the killer they were covering. “You will never hear me mention his name.”
The sheriff’s statement reflects the overwhelming sentiment of the people in that small town in Oregon, and of the American people. It’s the names of the victims we should know, all nine of them who were murdered in Oregon, and he named their names: Lucero Alcaraz, 19, of Roseburg, whose sister posted on Facebook that she won scholarships to cover her college costs; Quinn Glen Cooper, 18, of Roseburg, whose family said he loved dancing and voice acting; Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, 59, an outdoors enthusiast who was taking classes at the same time as her daughter; Lucas Eibel, 18, of Roseburg, who was studying chemistry and loved volunteering with animals; Jason Johnson, 33, whose mother told NBC News he successfully battled drug abuse and was in his first week of college; Lawrence Levine, 67, of Glide, an assistant professor of English at the college; Sarena Dawn Moore, 44, of Myrtle Creek; Treven Taylor Anspach, 20, of Sutherlin; and Rebecka Ann Carnes, 18, of Myrtle Creek.
NoNotoriety.com is a website dedicated to not giving the mass killers the attention they seek. The site, created after the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, expressed the wishes of so many of the victims’ families with this mission statement: “The quest for notoriety and infamy is a well-known motivating factor in mass killings and violent copycat crimes. In an effort to reduce future tragedies, we challenge the media, calling for responsible media coverage for the sake of public safety when reporting on individuals who commit or attempt acts of rampage mass violence thereby depriving violent like-minded individuals the media celebrity and media spotlight they so crave.”
I didn’t see any families from NoNotoriety.com on TV the past few days challenging the media to be careful about how they exercise their own First Amendment rights. Because it is not some obscure theory, the idea that the media are playing a part in these mass-shooter suicides.
Back in 1987, four teenagers in the small town of Bergenfield, New Jersey, made a suicide pact. They entered a car in a garage, started the engine, and died minutes later of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Two more young people in the town attempted suicide the next week. The national media descended on the town in full force. Every network, national news outlet, magazine and writer, it seemed, was there.
I remember it like it was yesterday because my dad was the superintendent of schools of Bergenfield at the time, and the media’s appetite for gruesome details seemed not merely insatiable, but unsavory. It was sickening to many people my family knew in town. “The vultures,” a school board member called them. We mostly agreed.
The coverage was endless. The reporters were insensitive to the grieving families, and most of us just wanted them to all go away. And this was before the advent of the 24-hour news cycles and cable TV.
But that was just the beginning of a rather tragic phenomenon: Within a few weeks of that big story, a rash of suicides erupted nationwide that resembled those in Bergenfield, leading The New York Times to run a front-page headline that put media coverage itself in the crosshairs: “Pattern of Death: Copycat Suicides Among Youths.”
“Hearing about a suicide moves those teenagers at risk closer to doing it themselves,”‘ David Shaffer, then head of the Suicide Research Unit at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, told The Times. “The news coverage of teenage suicides can portray the victims as martyrs of sorts, and the more sentimentalized it is, the more legitimate — even heroic — it may seem to some teenagers.”
This tendency of disturbed young people to imitate each others’ highly publicized suicides has a name — the Werther Syndrome, a reference to the hero of Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” In the novel, Werther kills himself to resolve what he saw as a hopeless love triangle.
The book was banned in some European countries because of a rash of suicides by young men who had read it. “Teenagers are highly imitative, influenced by fads and fashions in general,” David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego, told The Times.
In a series of studies, Phillips found a significant rise in suicides after a well-publicized case. The rise was greatest among teenagers. “Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it,” Phillips said.
The increase of suicides, and the increase in media coverage of them, led to Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide (1994), a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the authors, “Evidence suggests that the effect of contagion is not confined to suicides occurring in discrete geographic areas. In particular, nonfictional newspaper and television coverage of suicide has been associated with a statistically significant excess of suicides.”
The CDC report back in 1994 wasn’t finished. The panel believed that suicide contagion was increased by three tendencies of the news media:
1.) Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide. Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event but rather results from a complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history of psychosocial problems.
2.) Engaging in repetitive, ongoing or excessive reporting of suicide in the news. It turns out that repetitive and ongoing coverage, or prominent coverage, of a suicide tends to promote and maintain a preoccupation with suicide among at-risk persons, especially among persons 15 to 24 years of age. This preoccupation appears to be associated with suicide contagion.
3.) Providing sensational coverage of suicide. By its nature, news coverage of a suicidal event tends to heighten the general public’s preoccupation with suicide. This reaction is also believed to be associated with contagion and the development of suicide clusters. News media professionals should attempt to decrease the prominence of the news report and avoid the use of dramatic photographs related to the suicide.
The CDC’s report was not widely reported, shock of shocks — and the media continue to be guilty on all three of the above counts as they relate to the contagion of mass-shooter suicides.
Media coverage of suicides, the CDC concluded, is a cause of suicides.
Add nearly 30 years and imagine the overlay of social media and 24-7 cable news outlets, and then add a twist — the mass murder suicide — and you get the picture. Where, you might wonder, is the follow-up CDC study as it relates to mass-shooter suicides?
Americans across the country are with the CDC, with NoNotoriety.com, and with Sheriff Hanlin. They are sick and tired of the endless media sensationalism that drives more deranged young men to follow in their warped hero’s footsteps. They’re sick and tired of the endless vilification of gun owners, the NRA, and one political party — when the media well know that many rural Democrats are with the NRA on gun rights and gun control, too.
In the days and weeks to come, there should be debates about more than just the Second Amendment. That debate will lead inexorably to other deep constitutional concerns. Should all folks with mental health issues be flagged and forbidden from owning a gun?
In the days and weeks to come, there should be debates about more than just the Second Amendment. That debate will lead inexorably to other deep constitutional concerns. Should all folks with mental health issues be flagged and forbidden from owning a gun? Who makes that call? And what do you think will be the response from advocates of folks suffering from mental health disabilities?
Should anyone who threatens someone on Facebook, or who issues vague threats, be kicked off Facebook? Should Facebook be obligated to notify authorities? If it doesn’t, should there be repercussions — civil if not criminal?
And should Apple and Facebook and Amazon be compelled to open up their technology to searches by law enforcement? Up to now, they have been reluctant to cooperate with the law even after crimes have been committed.
There should be a debate about the role of law enforcement being given more latitude to detain or do what it must to stop such tragedies. But I am certain the ACLU would quickly weigh in and remind Americans that the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments were designed to limit the power of the state to take such preemptive measures — like detainment and arrest — before an actual crime has been committed.
It makes the world a more dangerous place, all of those civil liberties for would-be criminals. But those rights are in place to protect the rest of us, too. They were designed because too much police power — too much state power — can be more repressive, more dangerous, than any one criminal.
And there should be a real discussion about background checks and bumpstocks and everything else related to guns, because not all of us on the Right have precisely the same views. And not all NRA members agree on everything related to guns, and the reasonable limits of ownership.
No right in the Constitution is absolute, and that’s not this author making that up, but the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in the Heller case, which made gun ownership a personal right.
But it needs to be a discussion and not a shout-down like we witnessed with Don Lemon and Rich Lowry of National Review on CNN the other night. Lowry was barely able to make his point without being called an enabler of mass murder. Not much of a talk.
What there won’t be — not for a New York minute — is any discussion of the media’s role in these mass shootings, and what can be done about it. That’s because the media don’t like turning the cameras, and the questions, on themselves.
One of the best movies of 2014 was a film called “Nightcrawler.” It starred Jake Gyllenhaal as a hired gun for TV stations, and his peculiar specialty was getting to the scene of an accident before his competitors, and getting up-close footage of people dying, or already dead — which he would then sell to a local news station.
By movie’s end, Gyllenhaal’s creepy character had gone far beyond finding gory footage. He was soon a participant in the news, going so far as to cause a shootout that may not have happened but for his presence.
He thrived — he made a living — from other people’s personal tragedy. And used that tragedy to garner ratings. And make money.
To many Americans, the journalists and pundits who make a living from such carnage are no better than the character Gyllenhaal so brilliantly depicted.
That might be something the media might consider as the nation grieves.
Heck, they might even want to pray about it.
Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Media Group. He is also the host of “Our American Stories,” which can be heard nationwide in almost 100 affiliates. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.