TV news can't stop a mass murderer, but it could make a difference
This Saturday, PBS will be airing "What Next After Newtown: What Our Country and Communities Can Do" at 3:00 p.m. (check local listings). I'm curious to see this, as I'm sure I share the same sense of powerlessness and frustration a lot of people have had following the events in Newtown last week. Even though I think the problems that lead to mass murder are many, complex and thorny, if there's something I can do, I'd like to know.
Admittedly, I've begun to tune out (and mostly dismissed in this article) the pundits who've taken to the airwaves this week, offering easy solutions (a stop to all gun sales, armed guards, an "instant" reform of mental health care). Mass murderers are motivated by many different things, and they are not easy to spot (or even help) in advance of tragedy.
Attempts to change gun laws can happen, but often hit road blocks and, as we know of the federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004, they can change and change back again. No matter what we do, I fear there will be another mass murder, and another. We are still asking questions and searching for answers, trying to unravel why the U.S. is the mass murder capital of the world. It's not just video games, or violent movies, or access to guns, or the uniquely American, individualistic point of view. It could be all of these things, or some of these things, or more than these things. We are still searching, still pondering what can and should be done, still hoping that eventually, we will make all the changes we need to to make such horrible scenes strange, ancient history.
I've thought a lot about (don't laugh) the segment featuring Dr. Michael Welner that aired on "The View," in which the forensic psychologist pointed a damning finger at the media in the role it is playing following the murders. Welner called out the show for plastering an enormous picture of the Newtown murderer on a screen behind the hosts. "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," he said.
What I couldn't stop wondering was, what if it didn't?
Of course, that 24-hour news cycle Welner refers to must be fed, and we are complicit in it. I freely admit that I wanted to know who did this horrible thing, what drove him to it, what his friends had to say about him. I don't think that can ever go away.
My only suggestion is a small one. It is hardly a fix. Perhaps it would not make an appreciable difference, but we'll never know unless it happens.
What if the image of the killer were blurred, pixelated or rubbed away? Usually this is an effort made to protect the privacy of children or sexual assault victims, but in this case it would be used to another end: to make mass killers, and just mass killers, not quite anonymous but not exactly famous, either.
I find that, when I think of Newtown, I may in a general sense think of the beautiful, bright-eyed children, all of whom started to blur together into a tragic mass of unrealized potential and heartbreaking innocence. But finally, the image that I can't shake is the glassy-eyed stare of the killer, a haunting image I've seen hundreds of times.
What if the only change TV news made was to blur that image? How much work would it be?
It wouldn't constrain the endlessly churning news cycle. It wouldn't make it difficult for news reporters to do their jobs. They could still pepper us with too much information. But if I only knew the name of the killer and had no face to attach it to, I think it would become lost like old phone numbers and the names of people I meet briefly at parties. It wouldn't stick.
As I said, small change. Some, like author Neil Gaiman, have suggested more, tweeting, "Perhaps mass murderers should have their names & faces removed from the history books/newsworld, thus guaranteeing they would be forgotten." I suspect TV news networks would balk at the idea of anyone taking away their ability to do their jobs in the manner to which they've become accustomed. Thus, I suggest only a small change, one that would be voluntary, if they would latch onto the idea.
And your question likely is, so what? What difference would it make? I would posit that making these killers less memorable in any way could make an (admittedly small) difference if you look at one element that seems to be a common thread in mass murderers, who are very different from serial killers or other types of violent attackers. That thread is narcissism.
As Time magazine explained, "the profile of the mass killer looks a lot like the profile of the clinical narcissist, and that's a very bad thing. Never mind the disorder's name, narcissism is a condition defined mostly by disablingly low self-esteem, requiring the sufferer to seek almost constant recognition and reward. When the world and the people in it don't respond as they should, narcissists are not just enraged but flat-out mystified."
Narcissism is hardly the average mass murderer's only problem. If it was, everyone on Bravo would have taken out large swaths of the population. Many of these people grapple with crippling depression, have had drug or alcohol problems and/or have been sexually abused. A desire for fame, or validation, or simply to be heard is never the sole reason a mass murderer is made. But what if removing one of the many puzzle pieces that make this brand of acting out so attractive was removed?
As I said, it's not a fix. The only hope of this having any sort of impact is in conjunction with other changes -- changes in current laws, changes in mental health care access, changes we haven't even thought of yet. But just as many elements must come together -- an inciting incident, bottomless rage, a childhood of abuse -- must come together to create a mass killer, perhaps a series of changes, small and large, might change his trajectory.
The challenge, of course, is convincing even one network to make the change. But as TV is more quickly reactive than, say, Congress, it may not be too much to ask. People vote with their remotes; if a network were to learn via social media, say, that such a small measure might be rewarded in better ratings, it might be worth the risk. We just have to make the suggestion.
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