I got an email from an MSNBC producer Monday: “Topic: Another Mass Shooting. Theme: Why Does This Keep Happening?”
I’m sick of that question. Here’s mine: Why do we keep encouraging them?
There is no single cause for mass shootings, but we have an opening. The killers share four crucial traits: Nearly all are men. Nearly as many experienced a recent failure or loss. Most had easy access to guns. All were seeking attention.
We can’t eliminate men or failure. Gun reform is imperative, but Congress can’t find the courage. The stage, that’s our opportunity. Why do we keep ushering these goons onstage?
Stage access is governed entirely by the media. My profession has been as spineless as Congress — which at least admits the gun debate belongs to them. We keep pretending we have no role in this self-perpetuating succession of mass murder. We are helpless. We don’t create the stage, it just sort of … happens? That’s our story, and we are sticking to it.
The media didn’t start this. That is true. We didn’t cause Oklahoma City or Columbine. Those tragedies lit a terrible spark that has been smoldering and erupting for a decade and a half, and we have sure as hell been fanning the flames.
Now none of these killers are purely attention-seeking. Most are deeply, suicidally depressed; a fraction are mentally ill; and a smaller number are cold, calculating psychopaths. Notoriety is not the sole driver, but it is an essential one.
In his enlightening book Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer distilled all mass murder into one pithy phrase: Performance violence. Murder as theater. Killing your boss or your girlfriend is revenge. But shooting up their entire building, or any symbolic building, is about raising your body count. You’re amping up the “wow” factor. It’s a performance. We know that.
Performances require an audience and demand a star. The media provides the audience and we cast the lead role.
Some have called for us to stop covering these mass shootings. That’s unrealistic, and no way to run a democracy. But what we can do, and remarkably easily, is withhold the spotlight.
The killing will get covered, but we can and should deprive the shooter of name recognition.
My proposal: Ask all news organizations, websites, blogs, etc. to voluntarily accept two principles:
1. For the first 48 hours, use the name of the suspect sparingly.
2. After that he can be “the gunman,” or “the killer,” or “the perpetrator” … disappear him.
That’s it. Outlets can adapt or make exceptions as they wish. The 48 hours provides a window to alert former girlfriends, pharmacists, etc. who might have useful information. It’s arbitrary — feel free to change it.
“Sparingly” could mean once per show or once per story. A viewer tuning in for four solid hours would hear his name four times instead of, say, four hundred.
I have tried this for over a year. In dozens of TV interviews, I never once had difficulty. The name is so unnecessary, I don’t think anyone even realized I was omitting it.
If, in time, 80% of news organizations comply, then nearly 80% of his spotlight goes dark. Perhaps that will grow to 90 or 95. Full compliance is not necessary, or even desirable. Any researcher or curious audience member can just Google the name. Killers are not craving to be googleable.
The point is not to hide the information, it’s to willfully deprive the killer of his fame.
The audience for this withhold is not the jerk who murdered in Washington Monday. (I’ve yet to name him. Are you confused?) He is dead, and irrelevant. This is for future killers.
How would they react today, if our latest perp was not just half-invisible, but actively snubbed? Aggressively disrespected, blotted out, deprived of the one goal he sought?
Where is the performance motive when the stage remains, but you are unlit? The marquee still everywhere, your crime named, but not you?
Recently, I’ve seen signs that journalists are facing reality. I suggested withholding at a Dart Center academic seminar after Virginia Tech, and was practically heckled off the podium. I broached it again at their Columbia Journalism School seminar this spring, after Newtown, and people were ready to discuss. I proposed it on Now With Alex Wagner on MSNBC today and the panel was outright warm. Alex nodded as I pointed that she could have done the exact same show intro intro with two fewer words, and exactly the same comprehension. And that I had already employed it on her show in the past and she never noticed. Ten minutes later, the Huffington Post media reporter emailed asking to talk.
Hopefully, our profession is starting to come to grips with our role. I think we all know we have been playing a role. But we are frustrated. We are just doing our jobs. We have to talk about this shit. Everyone groaned before we started today. We don’t like this. We can’t see another way. There are lots of ways.
Last summer, Anderson Cooper made a move. A few days after the Aurora movie theater shooting, at the height of nonstop coverage, he announced at the opening of his CNN show that they would not utter the killer’s name that hour. Anderson had previously spoken it, and of course the name would be bantered on media all around him. So what? It was a step. A big step. He repeated the move after Newtown.
Applying this withhold to old crimes is optional. We can diminish their recognition over time, but awful names we will never unlearn. It’s too late to disrespect them. Unfortunately, there will be new killers. And they will quickly learn they leapt for the stage too late. The list of notorious killers is complete. You can add new crimes, but we are not adding new names.
Dave Cullen is the author of the New York Times best seller Columbine.