When you work in the media, you can expect one thing for sure: you will be criticized by people no matter what you do.
Even if you intentionally set out not to do something you’ve previously been criticized for doing, someone new will come along and criticize you for that.
Over the weekend, I began spotting people in my friends list — people who, of course, have never spent an hour of their lives actually working in the media and doing the jobs about which they seem to fancy themselves experts — posting a quote from actor Morgan Freeman.
In it, Freeman expresses his feelings about how such a tragedy in Newtown could have happened, and seems to pull no punches in who is to blame.
You probably saw it several times, but here’s the quote in case you didn’t:
You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here’s why … It’s because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine?
Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody … CNN’s article says that if the body count ‘holds up,’ this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another.
Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer’s face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity? None that I’ve seen yet. Because they don’t sell.
So congratulations, sensationalist media, you’ve just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next … You can help by forgetting you ever read this man’s name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news.”
It’s an interesting commentary, and it certainly plays into the frustrations of those who have wasted no time criticizing the media’s coverage of the shootings.
It even seems to fall in line with comments Freeman made to 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace about the way to end racism: “Stop talking about it.” But even then, Freeman wasn’t talking about not discussing legitimate cases of racism, so much as talking about racism in general or trying to frame everything as a result of it.
But there’s one key problem with the passage: there’s a very good chance that Freeman didn’t say it. Scroll down the page on the link above and see for yourself. So much for checking one’s facts before reporting something, right?
Do you recall the name of the gunman who shot Gabrielle Giffords? Honestly, I don’t. Sure, if you gave me multiple choice, I’m sure I’d recognize his name. I think of Giffords and how far she’s come since suffering what we’d have thought was a mortal wound. But the shooter himself? I don’t walk around with his name at the tip of my tongue.
And really, that’s saying something. I have a photographic memory. To the point that I once filled out the lease for an apartment for me and one of my closest friends about 18 years ago, and my friend couldn’t be there at that time, so I had to take down his Social Security number for the lease application: I still remember it. Why? Who knows?
Yet I don’t recall the name of the Giffords shooter. It isn’t important to me.
I recall the last name of one of the Columbine shooters, Klebold, only because it’s an unusual name. (And because I had the additional help of having just seen it in the quote.) I wouldn’t pick Eric Harris’s name out of a list. I don’t recall the full names of the victims of the Columbine shootings, though I do clearly remember the interview of a father who’d lost his son and a young man who’d lost his sister, who sat holding hands during an emotional appearance on Today with Katie Couric. I remember that the son’s name was Isaac.
I know — at least, I think I know — the name of one of the hijackers from 9/11. I do know the name of one of the victims of 9/11: Joshua David Birnbaum. In fact, I wrote a lengthy post about him on the fifth anniversary of the event. I know it’s hard to believe coming from someone who works in the media and might therefore be expected to be “glorifying” the bad guys.
If you’re one of the ones who criticize the media for not paying enough attention to victims of such an event, I respectfully ask this: How many tributes to victims have you written? And if you wrote even one, was it before or after you wrote about how the media gets it wrong?
Sorry to be so impertinent, but I’m afraid they are valid questions. And their honest answers speak volumes about your priorities, not the media’s.
It’s impossible, in the first hours after such a tragedy, for the media to spend a great deal of time on the victims. That’s not out of a lack of concern, but simple logistics: even the families don’t yet know their loved ones are victims, yet. Identification has to be performed, and in some cases, for those who haven’t figured it out, the result of gunshot wounds can make a quick identification very difficult.
The late David Brinkley, a man who spent more than 50 years in journalism, had a quote he used once in a while to people who criticized everything. It would begin, “Since you’re so damned smart…” and would precede a question along the lines of, “…what would you have done differently?”
People immediately jumped on the media for getting the name of the suspect wrong in the initial hours after the first 911 call came in: “How could they get that wrong?” was the popular question. How? Because the suspect allegedly carried his brother’s identification. Because a law enforcement official provided the name to the media: it wasn’t a guess on the media’s part, but rather information that was provided to the media without being vetted properly by the provider.
Could the name of the suspect have been saved for later? Sure. Of course. But when an official source gives you information, and your job is to report what you believe to be true, then you do your job.
Don’t complain that the media spent too much time in its initial hours on the suspect and body count and not enough on the victims: it’s all the media had to work with. The media reports on the severity of the shooting because that’s one of the pieces of information it has, not to “light a fire” in the hopes someone else would top it: the very suggestion to the contrary is absurd.
I think, since people enthusiastically began posting this supposed Freeman quote without bothering to check its authenticity, they’ve seen plenty of reports on the victims. Families who were willing to talk about their loved ones were given that opportunity. Names were read. The media, which is always accused of highlighting only the worst, also showed you how a community came together to love each other in an unimaginable disaster, showed people hugging and applauding first responders who’ll never forget the horror of what they saw, showed memorial services where innocents were remembered, and gave the rest of you who had no direct connection to Newtown, Connecticut, the opportunity to join with them in mourning.
It showed you the good and bad of a situation. It presented reaction to something that should never have happened and opened a dialog about what should and shouldn’t be done next.
And it at least tries to help us all make sense of things as we attempt to answer that terrible, unanswerable question: Why?