Television coverage of Newtown poses questions but no answers
I thought twice about posting this. After all, the non-stop media coverage of the mass murders in Newtown on Friday has made it clear that, despite many people yammering away on our television screens, few are saying anything of note. It's hard to fathom what anyone can say about this, a crime beyond reason, but every network has their pundits and reporters working overtime to find angles, offer advice, snag high-profile interviews. It is what we have come to expect during times like these.
Like a lot of Americans, I've found it hard to look away, even when I've wanted to. We all want answers. We hope that in learning whatever we can, no matter how trivial a detail might seem, we will find revelations hidden between the sad news crawls and inappropriately flashy chyrons.
After the first confused hours or reportage and retractions, with errors seemingly leaking inexorably into every newscast, the job of the television news was, if bungled, fairly straightforward. But as Friday seeped into an unbearably long weekend, the insatiable news cycle had to move on.
Some news items were unquestionably useful. How to explain what happened to your children, things you can do to restore a sense of security, questions to ask your child's teachers or school. The right and wrong things to say to the bereaved.
But next came the attempt by the media, having mostly answered the easy elements in the inverted pyramid -- who, when, where, what and how -- to tackle the why of it all.
In this case, why was the start of many, many questions. Why did this happen? Why was this possible? Why did no one stop him? Why did he want to do this in the first place? Other questions bubbled up, buoyed by anger and fear. How can we make sure this never happens again? How can we see the madness of this man in someone else? As we surely know, there will be another killer. There always is.
So, the pundits came out, banging fists or clasping hands studiously before them. While FBI profilers and pastors popped up everywhere -- I think I'd have to camp out inside Joel Osteen's church to see more of him than I have in the last three days -- even the savviest speakers struggled to offer much beyond a sound byte. For many, it was a chance to talk about what's broken in our society. Some demanded a gun ban. Others demanded guns for teachers. Everyone pointed a damning finger at the state of mental health care. The media and video games were roundly condemned.
ABC News went so far as to slap a label on their special programming: "Tragedy at Sandy Hook: The Search for Solutions." There was something oddly self-helpish about the title, as if Iyanla Vanzant might show up to offer some inspirational mottos. The implication is that there might be a solution, an end point. That a slate of special network news programming might be able to help us get there would have been ridiculous if it wasn't simply maddening.
While some of the experts were insightful, too few (especially on the major networks) were able to articulate what Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "I come to you this morning with a heavy heart and no easy answers," he said in a thoughtful ten-minute segment, adding that blaming the easy targets was, yes, too easy. Just as what drives a madman to take such violent action is likely a complex, often muddled series of events, solutions offered in two minute nuggets don't do much more than make us feel better in the belief that, if whatever is broken is fixed, this will be the last time we experience this brand of hell. No one had time to get into the thornier issues of what has stopped us from "fixing" some of these problems before now, but I guess that was never really the point.
Still other experts took to the air trying to explain how the state of mind of the gunman (yes, he has a name and I refuse to use it). Dr. Drew and Dr. Oz chatted about isolation and rage, and Dr. Oz asked how to get inside the mind of a killer (short answer: you don't). As knowing and insightful as the good doctors were, their efforts were futile. No one can understand insanity, not even the madman trapped within its walls. We want to know, of course, thinking we might be able to spot the psychopath in our midst. If all the friends-of-friends being interviewed in Newtown have taught us anything, though, it's that even when a person is labeled strange or troubled, rarely does anyone make the leap to suspecting a mass murder might be on his or her agenda.
At the end of the day, despite non-stop programming -- we've now moved on to gut-wrenching interviews with the parents and siblings of the dead children and watching Katie Couric cry -- we are no closer to unraveling a complex problem, to knowing the mind of a killer, or to being able to sleep easily at night.
If nothing else, the media has at least opened a door to further conversation about difficult topics, though intelligent discussion is just as likely to be shoved aside for more time spent digging into the thoughts of a deranged man, ensuring we never forget his name or face no matter how much we want to.
On "The View," forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner sat in the semi-circle of clucking women, unafraid to make a point that Barbara Walters may not have appreciated. "The 24 hour news cycle is taking these people who are angry at the world and building them up as larger than life, just as, for example, we saw the picture of him behind us," the doctor said, gesturing to where a creepy photo of the killer had been projected from floor to ceiling behind them, "… and we identify with the mass killer… It's gonna happen again, it's gonna get worse, and it's gonna happen to children. Why? Because you're shocked and you will talk about it. If we're shocked enough, everyone's going to ask, who is this clown?"
This week more questions will be asked, and more answers will be offered. Most of them will be too simple to be of much use to anyone. But I hope we continue to ask questions. If we can ultimately accept that many of them can never be answered, at least not between commercial breaks, we might finally get somewhere.