Cheat-Seeking Missles

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Media At Its Worst On Display At Virginia Tech


I listened to about 10 minutes of the Virginia Tech police chief's press conference yesterday and was astounded by tastelessness of the media and, more understandably, the ineptness of the police spokesman in dealing with the media's tastelessness.

Yes, I was trying to gather information on the killings like everyone else listening, but I realized that I was seeing everything a bit differently from most when I went over to fellow Watcher's Coucil member Done With Mirrors to track reader_ian's live blogging of the press conference.

I went to get a transcript of the questions; but when liveblogging, who has time for questions? There was just ***** where the questions would be. (Lawrence Jarvik Online posted a streaming video of the press conference here.)

Here are the legitimate questions for a few hours after a tragedy of this magnitude:
  • Have you identified the gunman?
  • Are you sure there's not an additional gunman out there?
  • What are you doing now to protect the campus if there is an additional gunman?
  • What is the condition of the injured?
  • Among the victims, how many are students, and who are the others?
  • Can you lay out the timeline?
  • When and how will the victims be identified?
  • When and how will the parents be notified?
  • What could you have done differently?
  • What can others learn from today in order to make protections greater?
Not all of those important questions were asked, at least during the time I heard, because the focus was on "What could you have done differently?" -- and not in an inquiring way; rather, the tone was completely accusatory. In other words, the questions were overwhelmingly stated as if the culpable party was not the killer, but the university police.
  • Why didn't you lock down the school right away?
  • Why didn't you warn the students right away?
  • Why did you tell students to stay in buildings?
  • Why weren't you able to stop the killing in the engineering building once it started?
And on and on. Most of these questions are based on false assumptions. How can you lock down a school? Is it even possible? How can you reach students with warnings if they all have iPod earphones in their ears? What would you email students to do if an isolated shooting occurs in an area that is now secured? How can anything other than an armed, always present police force instantly control a sprawling campus with multiple buildings? And how would the press and the student body (not to mention taxpayers and the ACLU) respond if such a force were employed?

But the media didn't pause to consider the situation. It's a wonder they could write anything at all in their notebooks, what with their fingers so busy pointing.

I'm not saying their questions are not legitimate; in time they should and will be asked and answered, after the facts are investigated and the details are known. But to pose them on the day of the tragedy, with the knowledge that concerned (or already notified) parents and familes, along with a concerned nation, were listening, was heartless and inhuman.

Reporters know press conferences like yesterday's are beamed live and millions are watching and listening, but this doesn't mute reporters in any way; rather, it brings out their worst, most competitive, most accusatory characteristics, because to them, that is "looking good," and they want to look good before such a large audience. Truly looking good -- showing concern, compassion and consideration -- is not their business.

Update: Looking particularly not good this morning was Diane Sawyer, who I listened to on Sirius ABC Talk Radio at about 6 a.m. She was interviewing the university president, and besides, incredulously, asking if he was going to resign, she probed about why the president of the university used the phrase "the second gunman" to refer to the dead man at the engineering school.

When the president said it was because they were not yet completely certain the dorm killer and the classroom killer were one in the same, she jumped in with, "Are you saying there was some complicit conspiracy?"

Of course he wasn't saying that; he was saying there were two crime scenes and there might be two criminals. He did not address whether it was happenstantial or not, yet being a media person looking always for the bigger, more sensational story, Sawyer took a leap only a whacked conspiracy nut or a topflight reporter would make. Very, very odd. (End of update.)

The police chief could have squelched the reporters very effectively, but like media briefers in DC and Baghdad, they were either too afraid or simply unable to put the media in its place.

All the police spokesman had to say was:
"Look, sane people cannot predict the behavior of insane people. Sane people go by what experience and rational thought tell them. That's what we did, and in doing it, we thought we were doing the right thing. An insane person did something none of us had experienced before, something none of us had learned about or studied. We reacted well when we understood -- but, unfortunately, we only reacted, because how on earth could we anticipate how insanity would manifest itself?"
And with every follow-up question of the ilk:
"I don't know. We'll find out when the time is right. Today, so quickly after the tragedy, when we're still trying to understand the crime and identify the victims and notify the families, is not the time for that question."
But that didn't happen, no more than in happens any other time the press runs rampant. Often, the news is insignificant, like Anna Nicole Smith's death. Sometimes it is terribly important but not of lasting significance, like yesterday's press conference. And sometimes ... in Baghdad, in the White House or Pentagon briefing rooms ... it is critically important.

In those venues, the media behave the same way. Rather than focus on the obvious problem, be it an insane student or a jihad-crazed terrorist organization, they focus on what those in power are doing wrong. It is a sick and destructive mindset and it permiates the media.

"If your mom says she loves you," said a banner that once hung in the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, "check it out." That's how cynical and negative reporters are trained to be -- and rewarded for being.

Occasionally Tony Snow (God bless him!) would put the media soundly in its place, but such skilled reactions are all too rare. Too much deference. Too much fear.

Well, screw that! The media have become a rude houseguest all across America. They're not only deterring the transmittal of the true heart, soul and significance of stories because they can't see them through their cynicsm (as in reconstruction in Iraq), they are not only shifting the country's focus from the very real threats we face to their negative perceptions of government; it is even worse than that. They are setting a tone and being a living model of the very behavior that is deteriorating the social fiber of the country.

Want to know where America's increasing rudeness, selfishness and incivility is coming from? Play the press conference tape again, Sam.

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