Thursday, April 19, 2007
By Michael J.W. Stickings
As expected -- because it is always so -- a media event has become a media orgy. I'm talking, of course, about the Virginia Tech shootings, but that hardly matters. In search of sensationalism, the media have no shame. Any story will do, pretty much -- but the media play particularly well off stories like this one. Everything about it, after all, seems so juicy. The media do so well with death and destruction, but they also like a human side to the mayhem. Hence the mainstreamization -- if I may coin a term -- of weather news. (Hurricanes are sexy.) But there's more. There is also pain and suffering. And it's all happening right at home, in English, with so much mystery to unravel -- who was he? why did he do it? -- and with so many hot-button issues lingering on the periphery -- gun control, immigration, education.
Why the media do this is beyond the scope of this post, but there are a few points to make: Obviously, the media need to fill up the empty space that follows the reporting of the facts. That was done -- the facts are known, more or less, and so all that's left is repetition and speculation. There is a fine line between journalism and exploitation, and that line has been crossed. Just turn on your media outlet of choice. You'll see what I mean.
On this, see Taylor Marsh, who asks the right questions: "Have we lost all sense of dignity? When did our pain become something we're so proud of we need to broadcast it... never mind. We are a therapy nation now, televising our grief for all to see. It's what we now do best. But did the community of Virginia Tech need our prying eyes? It likely never occurred to anyone to ask." Taylor compares this to the media's coverage of the Iraq War, which has been abysmal. But, then, an Iraqi life is hardly worth an American one, we are left to conclude from this imbalance, and Iraq is way over there, and we don't want to think too much about it, lost cause that it is, and it's not nearly as sensational as what happened in Virginia. (More on Iraq below.)
Americans -- media and media consumers alike -- need answers. They cannot imagine that what happened in Virginia was just some senseless act of violence. There must have been more to it. And so the media orgy revolves around trying to answer the existential questions as well as the factual ones -- not just the who but the why -- that is, to unravel the seeming mystery of it all. Americans do not seem to want such answers to similar questions about the Iraq War -- it is far too remote, it would seem, for there to be needed any such effort -- but we are Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech is us. Even here in Canada, the media have focused disproportionately on the one Canadian who was killed, as if that death is somehow more significant than the others, but so it goes. This isn't about them, the victims, it's about us. We need to soothe ourselves, to have our existential upsurge pacified. We cannot and will not accept meaninglessness. To stare into the abyss is one thing. To accept that the abyss is all there is would shatter our fragile shells of civilized self-understanding. There must be a God.
And so we search for answers -- through the media, which are more than happy -- for ratings, to bolster their self-importance -- to oblige with all the investigation and speculation that can fill up the empty space. In this case, for this story, this leads us to such banal topics as mental illness, alienation, antidepressant medication. Are the answers to be found in there, anywhere? Or are they to be found in the world of politics -- gun control is the hot topic. In its more extreme and repugnant form, this search demands scapegoats, an evil Other upon which our indignant blame can be heaped. This is the world of Michelle Malkin and her ilk -- a world which upon which I discoursed to much fanfare last night.
On this, see also Steven Taylor: "[W]hy do we have to find blame in places other than the fact that a truly disturbed individual simply did an unthinkable act and cracked. There is only so much that can be done in a free society to prevent such situations. This attempt to blame a general 'liberal' attitude at universities and that this somehow has led to a culture of 'conflict avoidance' that somehow, by inference, led to people not defending themselves on Monday -- that is utterly ridiculous." Our own Capt. Fogg also put it well in a comment to a post by Creature: "This guy didn't go nuts because of television or rap music or gay marriage or any of the other shibboleths -- he went nuts because he was human and going nuts is a human affliction. It's an affliction that won't go away despite lectures on personal responsibility or despite bans or laws or wiretaps appeals to family values or protests or rubber bands worn on wrists."
But the truth -- rather than the truthiness presented to willing consumers by sensation-seeking news outlets and deranged commentators -- does not go down so easily. If the truth about Iraq is being largely ignored, or avoided, the truth about the Virginia Tech shootings continues to be overwhelmed by a media orgy that, as of right now, shows no signs of letting up.
And this brings us to Iraq, forgotten Iraq, where today was just another day, as we say, of life and death:
Four car bombs killed 131 people and wounded 164 others across Baghdad Wednesday, the U.S. military said, as bloodshed spiked two months into a U.S.-led crackdown meant to pacify the Iraqi capital.
It was one of the deadliest days of the four-year-old Iraq war, and some news agencies suggested the death toll may be higher. Reuters, quoting local officials, said almost 200 people were killed Wednesday. The Associated Press put the number at 183.
The carnage underscored the profound insecurity that continues to plague the nation, where additional American soldiers are being deployed in an attempt to curb sectarian violence.
Bloodshed. Carnage. Insecurity.
Is it right to compare Iraq and Virginia Tech? Perhaps not. But the juxtaposition -- and specifically the juxtaposition of media coverage -- is nonetheless deeply troubling. (This is Taylor's point.) There has been so much concentrated coverage of what happened in Virginia (and, to an extent, rightly so), but there has been, overall, gross indifference to what is happening in Iraq each and every day. It takes a massive death toll for Iraqi violence to register -- like today's, but, even then, nothing like there should be. And not just Iraqi violence. Stuck in perpetual therapy, Americans don't want to know much about anywhere else, either.
"But this happened in our own backyard," a critic cries. Yes, yes, I know -- and I understand. That, too, was my reaction to the news. The shooting did happen close to home -- closer to home than the violence in Iraq, closer to home in terms of our ability to relate to it, to see ourselves in those we see on television. We are them, they are us. We are all Hokies now.
All I am saying -- well, perhaps not all -- is that some perspective is in order. Becoming one with Virginia while detaching from Iraq is the easy way out. It allows us to cleanse our souls in yet another media-driven orgy of existential therapy even as more and more blood is spilled in some faraway place that is just too horrible even to attempt to comprehend.
And yet the media will soon move on, as they always do, to the next source of sensationalism, the next object of exploitation. The pain and suffering in Virginia will go on, but we won't care, because it was never really about them -- and because we will once again have managed to lie the ultimate lie to ourselves, to have persuaded ourselves that our questions were answered, that our fears were all dreams, that there was a point to the madness, or at least a reasonable explanation that put everything right again.
And we will follow the media, wherever they may go, from one sensation to the next.
And, media coverage or not, the blood will continue to flow... over there.
American and Iraqi alike, and others too. Whether we pay attention or not.