Tag Archives: Journalism

The Press and Mass Shootings

By now I do not think it is a stretch to describe the mass shooting as a truly American phenomenon.  To be sure, similar kinds of shootings happen in other countries, but nowhere do they happen with the frequency and sense of post-hoc helplessness, where even scores of dead children fail to sway federal lawmakers to act, as in the United States.  Like chronic unemployment, this is a deeply troubling trend that will be a way of life for many Americans in the years to come; for those who want or hope to perpetrate such acts; those who will become their  victims; and those who will bear witness to such events, in person or through the media.

Like any other chronic societal ill, the causes are many but some are more significant than others.  With mass shootings it is generally the notoriety of the act that gives the shooters the encouragement they need to carry it out.  The very nature of the act, with its multiple mostly randomized victims and gruesome violence, almost guarantees they will get the attention they crave.

But the shootings, no matter how gruesome or deadly, don’t publicize themselves.  That is the job of the media, which in this context mostly consists of news outlets.  This may be changing now that digital technologies have made news gathering and dissemination more accessible to the layperson and not simply the province of a reporter who has the backing of fact-checkers and editors.  But I would venture to guess that most people still receive their first full story of a news event — the one that shapes a person’s view of the event and its cast of characters for the remainder of the news cycle — from an outfit like the Times or CNN or even Fox News.

There is an inherent social value to the work done by these organizations.  It is the public’s right to know when certain things happen in the community or around the world.  So important is the news-gathering function to society that we have laws which in most circumstances prohibit the government from forcing reporters to divulge their sources even when doing so would serve an equally important societal good: the prosecution of criminal activity.  Such is the essence of self-governance, and is what distinguishes a democracy from say a totalitarian form of government.

But what happens when the reporting that is supposed to be done for the good of the public actually produces a net negative for that same constituency?  What if the reporting on mass shootings is so poor and so sensationalized that it  contributes to more acts of violence even while giving the public the information it needs to govern its own affairs,  information that might involve something as mundane as knowing not to venture into an area that is the scene of a massive manhunt or criminal investigation?

News reporting is now more than ever something to throw at the public hungry for distraction and entertainment.  It is its own reality show but with minimal production costs.  It is something to put on between commercials or to throw up on a webpage to increase or “drive” web traffic.  It is in other words the ideal medium through which another neglected, mentally troubled youth can experience his delusions of grandeur and feel empowered doing it.

I confess that I don’t know what effect, if any, the media’s portrayal and reporting of mass shootings has on the motivation and determination of those who end up carrying out these acts.  And I hope that someone decides to conduct a lengthy comprehensive study on this, if one has not been done already.  But if the conclusion of such a study suggests that there does exist a positive correlation between the two, as I suspect will be the case, then it should fall on the shoulders of the journalists themselves to regulate what may be their own involvement in a problem that is quickly growing out of control.

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Almost a “One Man Terror”

In my library is a compilation of Hemingway’s works as a journalist, entitled “By-Line: Ernest Hemingway” (Scribners 1967).  I came across it in a used bookstore in lower Manhattan years ago, although I suspect the bookstore is no longer there, as is the case with most independent book proprietors nowadays.  The compilation cost $8.50 and bore the following inscription circa 1967: “love and kisses always”, from Ann to Dad.

I pulled the book off the shelf the other day and flipped to no article in particular.  The one on which I landed turned out to be a dispatch from Hemingway’s days covering  the Spanish Civil War.  The piece is illuminating not only because of what it says but also how it is said.  It gives the reader the feeling that Hemingway conveyed to him or her what was in his mind at the moment, and that he did not have to, or at least chose not to, censor his thoughts out of fear, an exercise that is almost non-existent with most of today’s journalists.  The article, in substance, is classic Hemingway: a how-to for those who want to be real, i.e., manly, do-right, wartime correspondents, bubbling with an undercurrent of violence.  Whether Hemingway’s own journalism in this piece, by which he describes what he claims to be the true state of affairs in Madrid as of Sept. 1938, is credible or just a way for him to make his point against the weasel-y journalist and subject of his ire is another story that is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say that Orwell, through his own encounter with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, had his doubts about Hemingway’s tough-guy image with which he is famously associated.

The piece is entitled Fresh Air on an Inside Story, published in Ken magazine on September 23, 1938.  Here it is in full:

I met this citizen in the Florida Hotel in Madrid in the end of April of last year.  It was a late afternoon and he had arrived from Valencia the evening before.  He had spent the day in his room writing an article.  This man was tall, with watery eyes, and strips of blond hair pasted carefully across a flat-topped bald head.

“How does Madrid seem?” I asked him.

“There is a terror here,” said this journalist.  “There is evidence of it wherever you go.  Thousands of bodies are being found.”

“When did you get here?” I asked him.

“Last night.”

“Where did you see the bodies?”

“They are around everywhere,” he said.  “You see them in the early morning.”

“Were you out early this morning?”

“No.”

“Did you see any bodies?”

“No,” he said.  “But I know they are there.”

“What evidence of terror have you seen?”

“Oh, it’s there,” he said.  “You can’t deny it’s there.”

“What evidence have you seen yourself?”

“I haven’t had time to see it myself but I know it is there.”

“Listen,” I said.  “You get in here last night.  You haven’t even been out in the town and you tell us who are living here and working here that there is terror.”

“You can’t deny there is a terror,” said this expert.  “Everywhere you see evidence of it.”

“I thought you said you hadn’t seen any evidence.”

“They are everywhere,” said the great man.

I then told him that there were half a dozen of us newspaper men who were living and working in Madrid whose business it was, if there was a terror, to discover it and report it.  That I had friends in Seguridad that I had known from the old days and could trust, and that I knew that three people had been shot for espionage that month.  I had been invited to witness an execution but had been away at the front and had waited four weeks for there to be another.  That people had been shot during the early days of the rebellion by the so-called “uncontrollables” but that for months Madrid had been as safe and well policed and free from any terror as any capital in Europe.  Any people shot or taken for rides were turned in at the morgue and he could check for himself as all journalists had done.

“Don’t try to deny there is a terror,” he said.  “You know there is a terror.”

Now he was a correspondent for a truly great newspaper and I had a lot of respect for it so I did not sock him.  Besides if one should take a poke at a guy like that it would only furnish evidence that there was a terror.  Also the meeting was in the room of an American woman journalist and I think, but cannot be positive on this, that he was wearing glasses.

The American woman journalist was leaving the country and, that same day, he gave her a sealed envelope to take out.  You do not give people sealed envelopes to take out of a country in wartime, but this stout fellow assured the American girl the envelope contained only a carbon of an already censored dispatch of his from the Teruel front which he was mailing to his office as a duplicate in order to make sure of its safe arrival.

Next day the American girl mentioned that she was taking out this letter for him.

“It isn’t sealed, is it?” I asked her.

“Yes.”

“Better let me take it over to  Censorship for you as I go by, then, so you won’t get in any trouble over it.”

“What trouble could I get into?  It’s only a carbon of a dispatch that’s already censored.”

“Did he show it to you?”

“No.  But he told me.”

“Never trust a man who slicks hair over a bald head,” I said.

“The Nazis have a price of 20,000 [pounds] on his head,” she said.  “He must be all right.”

Well, at Censorship it tuned out that the alleged carbon of a dispatch from Teruel was not a carbon of a dispatch but an article which stated, “There is terror here in Madrid.  Thousands of bodies are found, etc.”. It was a dandy.  It made liars out of every honest correspondent in Madrid.  And this guy had written it without stirring from his hotel the first day he arrived.  The only ugly thing was that the girl to whom he had entrusted it could, under the rules of war, have been shot as a spy if it had been found among her papers when she was leaving the country.  The dispatch was a lie and he had given it to a girl who trusted him to take out of the country.

That night at the Gran Via restaurant I told the story  to a number of hard-working, non-political, straight-shooting correspondents who risked their lives daily working in Madrid and who had been denying there was terror in Madrid ever since the government had taken control of the situation and stopped all terror.

They were pretty sore about this outsider who was going to come into Madrid, make liars out of all of them, and expose one of the most popular correspondents to an espionage charge for carrying out his faked dispatch.

“Let’s go over and ask him if the Nazis really put a price of 20,000 [pounds] on his head,” someone said.  “Somebody should denounce him for what he has done.  He ought to be shot and if we knew where to send the head it could be shipped in dry ice.”

“It wouldn’t be a nice looking head but I’d be glad to carry it myself in a rucksack,” I offered.  “I haven’t seen 20,000 [pounds] since 1929.”

“I’ll ask him,” said a well-known Chicago reporter.

He went over to the man’s table, spoke to him very quietly and then came back.

We all kept looking at the man.  He was white as the under half of an unsold flounder at 11 o’clock in the morning just before the fish market shuts.

“He says there isn’t any reward for his head,” said the Chicago reporter in his faintly rhythmical voice.  “He says that was just something one of his editors made up.”

So that is how one journalist escaped starting a one man terror in Madrid.

If a censorship does not permit a newspaper man to write the truth, the correspondent can try to beat the censorship under penalty of expulsion if caught.  Or he can go outside the country and write uncensored dispatches.  But this citizen on a flying trip was going to let someone else take all his risk while he received credit as a fearless exposer.  The remarkable story at that time was that there was no terror in Madrid.  But that was too dull for him.

It would have interested his newspaper though because oddly enough it happened to be a newspaper that has been interested for a long time in the truth.

 

The Fourth Estate Is Crumbling

This recent exchange between Meet the Press host David Gregory and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald (video clip below) further proves my point that most journalists today, even those whom the public considers serious and respectable, are nothing more than mouthpieces for the government.  In fact, not only are they mouthpieces, they actively conspire with their government counterparts to shut down any dissent at all, especially when it comes to so-called issues of national security, to the extent that they are willing to level accusations of criminal conduct at another journalist on national television.  Despicable.