“The News” and Mass Murder

A dead soul makes a desperate lunge for the nihilist’s meaning-substitute, notoriety, by killing people in the hope of becoming infamous. The media grants the dead soul’s wish, sensationalizing his act as though it were Significant. Other dead souls get the idea: “I could go out in a blaze of glory, too.” Question: Does the media desire this result? Or do they merely not care?

The modern age, with its complex systems of democratic mass communication, has created a peculiar monster of dangerously amoral social content, “the news.” So ubiquitous is this idea of “the news” that even among those who roundly criticize much of “the news media,” the presumed solution is always to find better or alternative sources of “news,” rather than simply to turn off the news altogether. One rarely asks, “What is the news?” or “How does one thing get defined as news, and another dismissed as not news?” or “What, if anything, is the societal benefit of all this news?”

Does a mass killing, such as the most recent Florida school shooting, warrant national headlines, endless mawkish stalking and filming of the victims’ families, live coverage of memorial services, and the like? Knee-jerkingly, having been trained to see the world through the media’s lens, we might be inclined to say “Yes, because it’s important.” But is it?

Important to the families who lost loved ones, yes, and to people who lost their friends. Perhaps important to an entire local community, if the killer is still at large, or if the community is small enough that the victims and their surviving families have the emotional significance of flesh and blood neighbors, rather than what they are for the rest of us, namely nameless, generic excuses for cathartic — which is to say pleasant — public mourning. Yes, those who line up to put flowers on street corners in honor of people they have never met — whether dead celebrities or murdered children — are doing it primarily for their own enjoyment. It makes them feel good.

So what of any positive value is gained by treating such ugly events as the Florida school shooting as national news, and banner headline news at that? I see only two things to be gained:

(1) Political points for those in the media and government who wish to exploit suffering and inhumanity to pitch for stricter laws, reduced liberty, or electoral advantage if the violence can somehow be pinned on a political party;

— and, even more obviously,

(2) Dirty profits for a “news media” that has come to conflate its legally protected freedom of speech with moral license to pursue blood money — and worse yet, to actively stoke the social conditions that will create new opportunities to earn more blood money.

But what of the argument that the news media must report on these terrible events — what we now casually call “national tragedies” — because, after all, they are “legitimate news,” and people have a right to know? As for the so-called right to know: I have a right to know what is flowing through the drain pipes connecting my home to the public sewer, but it’s entirely up to me whether I want to see it, and I would be much happier if I could allow my whole life to pass without ever bothering to assert this right.

As for what constitutes legitimate news, that depends entirely on what you think is the purpose of the free press. There is no natural essence of “the news.” It is a social product, created by a combination of political vested interests (see Gain 1, above) and market forces, i.e., the meeting of public desire with salesmanship.

A successful salesman’s job is not merely to sell his goods to those who already want them. The other half of his work, at least as important, is to persuade people who might not otherwise have had any interest in his wares that they desperately need such things, or will be better off having them. In other words, he must not only satisfy any existing desire for his goods, but also promote and foster new desire.

This is true regardless of what one is selling, whether it be a genuinely beneficial product or a thoroughly harmful one. A successful drug pusher’s job is not merely to sell illicit drugs to those already weak, confused, or stupid enough to want them. He must also seek out others whose weaker impulses might be exploited, place his wares in front of them in ways that might tempt those who would never have actively sought illicit drugs, and try to break them down to finally trying his addictive and destructive goods out of idle curiosity or in a moment of moral laziness.

Aside from public broadcasters, who have a purely political agenda, the Western news media works on the same principle as any other business conducted through salesmanship, the only question being whether their salesmanship is of the sort that conforms to the mores of a civilized society, or, conversely, preys on the lowest impulses and amoral rationalizations of a deteriorating civilization. (The question of how much of the West’s decline may be blamed on the corrupting influence of the press may be left for another day.)

One clear example of how non-news can become “legitimate news” of the sort that everyone agrees must be reported is election polling. As I have explained many times before — perhaps I’ll revisit some of those arguments soon — political polls were originally invented as nothing but sales gimmicks for newspapers. That they have grown into leading factors in actual electoral results — i.e., that democratic electorates can now be manipulated into voting for one of a narrow slate of “realistic” candidates by means of these carefully-contrived snapshots of nothing — is a shining example of how the so-called legitimacy of the news is largely a product of socially-concocted perceptions, or rather misperceptions.

Twenty years ago, no one thought the Jerry Springer Show was legitimate news, or that its conga line of freaks, degenerates, and feuding families was worthy of the attention of rational adults. Most of us felt only disgust for such TV fare, and either mocked or lamented the minority among us who actually enjoyed that form of public degeneracy. Today, half the “issues” Springer’s show and others like it dragged out of the tabloids or the back alleys have become mainstream news stories, daily op-ed topics, university policy statements, or human rights causes.

Is a lost teenager taking out his misplaced anger on his fellow inmates of the modern factory school prison something that warrants a week of detailed coverage? — none of it, of course, focused on the real issues of any national relevance arising from this story, which relate to the way young people are raised in the era of compulsory government-regulated schooling. What is accomplished by this wall-to-wall, media-led public masochism? Families in sorrow are reduced to fodder for public entertainment (sad movies are always popular). Twisted young outsiders with crazy thoughts and no spiritual resources with which to combat them are aggrandized as terrorists and comic book villains, exactly as they hoped. And other young people of equally twisted souls are filled with wild ideas that suddenly seem a little more realistic and a little more glamourous, thanks to the pernicious influence of a conscienceless “news media” that takes its cues from the sales strategy of the drug pusher: Put the titillating wares in front of people until they succumb to the temptation, and then keep up a steady supply until they are hooked for life. 

Until, at last, they are just certain that the ugliness of a small-town loser flipping his lid, and the hideous pain of families facing devastating loss, are “legitimate news,” i.e., so exciting. Thanks in part to this horrible, distorted business model and its inherent exploitation and sensationalism of death and nihilistic violence, we are very likely to see more of these events in the near future, which will serve all concerned, and most obviously the financially lustful “news media,” very well.

I hope everyone will be happy — the “free press” will make more money, and their audience will go through more hankies enjoying that lovely feeling of simulated horror: “Oh, that’s so terrible! Oh, hush, hush, they’re going to talk to the crying parents now! This will be so sad, I can’t wait!”


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