The Media We Choose Not To Watch

By  · Published on August 27th, 2015

Yesterday a disgruntled man murdered two journalists as they broadcast the morning news. He shot and killed Alison Parker and Adam Ward, and wounded Vicki Gardner before uploading a POV video to Facebook, faxing a manifesto to ABC News and later turning the gun on himself.

You already know all of this. In fact, you were probably online when his Twitter handle was publicized. You may have even clicked on it with curiosity just in time to see a new entry pop up into the feed. He had live-tweeted his murder, confronting all of us that use social media with a question of whether or not we would give him the attention he was seeking.

The outcry in all of my feeds was for people not to watch or share the video. People pleaded directly with Twitter to shut down the account, and they did with laudable speed. People lambasted Facebook’s autoplay video feature (they shut down the account, too). People threatened to defriend and unfollow anyone sharing it ‐ a pack mentality being the only social tool we had to combat its spread.

I wholly understand this sentiment. Yesterday was a testament to how connective social media can feel even across the internet tubes. Still, it’s difficult to come an ethical conclusion about watching the video because of how personal the issue is. Even as monstrous as it is, and even though I personally feel differently, I can accept that others may feel drawn to the video specifically to feel as close to the truth of the tragedy as they can get ‐ particularly in a social environment where outrage blazes through Twitter while the halls of Congress remain eerily silent. We are running out of responses to this kind of conspicuous tragedy.

We were presented yesterday with the fierce immediacy of how something comforting and familiar can be contorted into a grotesque delivery system that injects pain and misery into our usual banality. Informing is now publicizing. Media outlets of all stripes were faced with the question of whether they would show the ready-made visual account of the event.

Commenting on the media’s response to this latest tragedy, NYU journalism professor Mitch Stephens acknowledged the double-edged sword:

I think, you know, the world might be safer if we ignored completely these things. But I think that world would be ‐ also be a nightmare to live in. I would not want to live in a world where television networks and the newspapers didn’t report on these things because of the possibility that it might create some sort of copycat crimes. We have to report these things.

Yet there’s a big, bold line between reporting and obsessing.

To put this situation in even stranger context, not only is it commonplace, it’s now natural and expected that a father would go on a prime time news program to be interviewed only hours after his daughter was killed. I didn’t bat an eye when Parker’s boyfriend sent out messages on Twitter about loving her, moving in with her and wanting to get married, until I realized how bizarre and normal it was. He was tweeting to strangers the morning his girlfriend died. He was sharing a photo album with a mob of cameras hours later. There’s a kind of casual insanity in that. On what might be the worst day of your life, Megyn Kelly is begging for an interview. And you accept.

Murders are public, but so is the grieving process. When something devastates us publicly, the public is where we turn for comfort. The instinct has shifted from politely asking for privacy during a difficult time to running headlong into open digital arms.

I saw a lot of fiction pop up in my social feeds yesterday ‐ particularly Black Mirror and Network. Every manner of sympathetic response including the hands-up-in-the-air futile resignation of comparing our reality to popular satire. Network was prophecy. Black Mirror isn’t nearly as weird as real life.

For that show’s inaugural episode, creator Charlie Brooker (seen shrewdly dissecting media’s addiction to violence in the above video recommended by Aaron Mogan) wrote “The National Anthem,” a story where a kidnapper threatens to kill a young member of the royal family unless the Prime Minister of England has sex with a pig during a live broadcast. With everyone glued to their televisions, the city is a ghost town unable to see what the kidnapper really has planned.

And, yet, here we are.

It makes sense that we’re trying to find comparisons with fiction because we’re mentally and emotionally scrambling for a foothold, and the surreal nature of what’s happened (and the different ways in which it keeps happening) don’t leave us with many direct, non-fictional points of context. So we turn to sci-fi and satire because the pull is organic, and it amplifies the feeling that what we’re living through doesn’t feel real. It feels like that dark comic episode we watched. Instead of giving the killer the video views he wants, we bring up something else we aren’t going to watch that day. Maybe we need that separation, or maybe there’s really nothing else for us to grab onto except for stories that used to feel fantastical.

When thinking about a killer who praised other public killings and reportedly ached for a spotlight, it’s impossible not to conjure the manic mosh pit of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The movie about the news media lionizing murderers in exchange for big, salivating ratings is nearly twenty years old. I had friends in high school who flat-out refused to watch it because of its intensity and the reputation it had developed.

Stone revisited the film in 1997 to talk about its initial and continuing controversy.

The money quote:

“I made the movie in 1992. It was a time when the American landscape was littered with sensationalism. The television industry was making a fortune off the crimes of the Menendez Brothers and O.J. Simpson and Loretta [sic] Bobbitt and Joey Buttafuoco and the two ice skaters who pushed each other. There was a continuing string of meaningless crimes that had captured the public, popular attention, why? Mostly because the networks had shoved it in front of them and kept on repeating it and repeating it until it became a mantra in their minds. It became the news. The news for profit. . . It was the fashion. It still is.”

It still is.

I recently wrote about watching Bowling For Columbine in the era of mass shootings, but after yesterday, it dawned on me how absolutely, unforgivably pessimistic Michael Moore’s film ends up being, not simply because we’ve changed nothing, but because its message was always that we couldn’t change anything.

Despite the theatrics, Moore’s most focused thesis is that a fearmongering news media is greatly to blame for creating a culture that ‐ on some level ‐ accepts large-scale violence, with events and death tolls amplified by the kinds of weapons we have access to.

At the time, and in years since, that message had a kind of ameliorating effect. The type of salve that also comes when we laugh at The Daily Show for skewering Fox News, momentarily forgetting that the very reason the network is a target for mockery is because of how unfathomably powerful it is. Up until recently, I don’t think I realized that Moore’s message was, “This is largely the news media’s fault…and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

For what it’s worth, that makes the overwhelming shout to shun the video comforting. We’ve lived a long time with a perverse relationship to media that’s become quotidian, so to actively and aggressively proclaim the media that we won’t watch is important. It’s not enough ‐ and it may not be possible ‐ to simply change the channel.

At the end of Natural Born Killers, star cross’d murderers Mickey and Mallory escape to a life of prosperity, and in that moment they transcend characterization to become representative of all who use violence to score camera time. Those who recognize the guaranteed spotlight. In real life, some get killed, some take their own lives, and some get captured, but Stone’s movie (as allegory) sardonically suggests that there will always be another. Mickey and Mallory are the collective of killers seeking media attention (that’s almost always granted to them), and they survive.

The movie took a lot of criticism that Stone largely brushed aside as punches that should have been aimed at real life. One meant as a mic drop against against the movie, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin ended her review with a statement that both made Stone’s point for him and echoes even louder after yesterday.

Mr. Stone’s vision is impassioned, alarming, visually inventive, characteristically overpowering. But it’s no match for the awful truth.

It still isn’t. And here we are.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.