This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.
Still reeling from the realization that the motive for murder (or any other act) can never be reduced to a predictive certainty, you decide that getting the word out about your discovery is critical to finding solutions that will prevent violence. Because you are well connected you place calls to several prominent reporters and news outlets, all of which express universal disinterest in what you have to say. The reaction is so consistent that at first you think you must not have explained yourself clearly, but after several more not-for-attribution conversations and a good deal of cogitation it becomes abundantly clear that you’re not the problem.
When it comes to exploiting the blood of innocent victims you have learned there are two ways to profit from the question of motive. You can plausibly ascribe motives to others because those motives can never be proven false, and, you can plausibly deny motives ascribed to you because those motives can never be proven true. While most parties opt for one strategy or the other given the rhetorical nature of charges and counter-charges, there is one stakeholder perfectly positioned to turn the usual back-and-forth about motive into a salable product itself. In fact, in the United States the right to do so is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Not only does the First Amendment preclude the government from telling you what you can and cannot say as a citizen, if you are a member of the press it gives you the right to tell the citizenry anything, even when the government would prefer you kept quiet. Whether a noble journalist concerned with truth or tabloid trash trying to make all the money you can by broadcasting insane ideas or outright lies, the First Amendment allows you to claim that you are being responsible and fair and objective and balanced without any fear of contradiction. Even if you are intentionally fomenting righteous indignation, fear and anger in your audience with the intent of converting those emotions into cash through advertising agencies, you have the right to do so. (Such arms-length transactions also allow you to claim that your mercenary editorial practices are entirely separate from your mercenary business practices, as if such a distinction was meaningful.)
Imagining yourself in the role of a money-hungry reporter eager to pervert the protections of the First Amendment, you realize your first objective would be identifying a real-world event that would draw interest — like, say, a mass killing. Assuming you were fortunate enough that such a crime took place, you could then attempt to fuel the story by providing what is euphemistically called coverage. From an entrepreneurial point of view this aggressive reporting would be aimed not at informing the public but at trying to give the story legs so it did not become just another moment in history. While ostensibly the result of consumer demand, such lucrative continuing interest would in fact be largely dependent on your reportorial ability to turn the tragedy into a marketing opportunity for you, your employer, and for the story itself.
If the story did develop legs you could then freely engage in what’s euphemistically called analysis, which is in fact little more than water-cooler-grade speculation if not outright editorial propaganda. If you were fortunate, cunning or both, you could use analysis to tie the real-world tragedy you’re milking for money to a long-running real-world debate that will never be resolved, thereby opening the door to profits in perpetuity. For example, if someone goes berserk and murders a dozen people, while you’re ceaselessly reporting what few facts you know during wall-to-wall, twenty-four-hour, live, multimedia coverage, you can also use the killings as a springboard to raise questions about, say, the easy availability of weapons, the inadequate state of mental health screening and treatment, or any other causal factor you believe to be good for your bottom line. Because you are under no legal obligation to be informative or accurate, you are constitutionally free to shape your analysis in whatever way proves most entertaining, engaging, infuriating or traumatizing to your audience, and most profitable to you.
Thinking about the state of journalism in the United States you realize this kind of for-profit manipulation of other people’s tragedies has not only been refined to high and bloody art, in terms of its daily manufacture the marketplace has long been segmented across all profitable points of view. Nowhere does this seem clearer than in the small but feisty cable news market, where three different for-profit companies have staked out territory representing mutually exclusive brand perspectives. When any monetizable tragedy occurs, all three companies — FOX News, MSNBC and CNN — provide ceaseless coverage from the point of view that most appeals to their target demographic. MSNBC generally blames the firearms industry for shootings, and right-wing propaganda in general for fomenting intolerance and hate; FOX News blames the mental health industry for failing to identify people who go on to commit unspeakable acts of violence, as well as left-wing propaganda for trying to make it harder for people to defend themselves with firearms; and CNN takes the philosophical middle ground, attempting to poach viewers from both extremes by hosting cartoon debates that mirror the philosophical divide between FOX News and MSNBC.
In each instance, however, the coverage generated by those for-profit news corporations is designed to turn the outrage, fear or grief that first attracts an audience into ongoing interest that lasts through as many revenue-generating commercials as possible. The most common means of doing so include promising vigilance on behalf of the audience, promising new information, and promising to reveal who was responsible — often well in advance of, if not in contravention of, the facts of the matter, to say nothing of any eventual legal finding. Also inherent in such promises, however, is the eventual explication of the criminal’s motive, which oddly enough often dovetails neatly with each network’s philosophical bent and prior baseless speculation.
In their zeal to build a brand and maintain a loyal and profitable audience, news outlets often imply — it not overtly claim — that violent tragedies could be prevented if only some obstinate or irresponsible group owned up to its blatantly obvious culpability. Known as the blame game, this cynical formula drives much of what passes for news these days because it’s so profitable. By presenting simplistic and misleading arguments in a manner that leaves viewers perpetually frustrated — as if some nefarious and shadowy force stands between them and resolution of the pain they feel in the aftermath of a horrific crime, which is in large part actually generated by the predatory coverage they’re watching — traumatized audiences can be held in perpetual emotional limbo, ensuring they continue to stay tuned or click refresh. As you now know, all it would take to clear up much of this uncertainty would be a blanket admission by the press that the motive for such acts can never be known to a certainty, let alone divined in advance. That in turn would allow everyone to devote what is currently wasted time and energy to solutions that might actually save lives.
Unfortunately, as you now also know, no industry makes more money purporting to explain motive than the news business. Telling the truth about motive would mean gutting the cash cow that writes the news industry’s blood-soaked paychecks, which is why your friends in the press were not interested in reporting what you’d learned. Cold facts may account for the number of dead, where they died, how they died, and perhaps even who killed them, but claiming to know why they died is the blood and butter of journalism, and that’s true whether a news outlet is considered reputable or disreputable.
(Later, while watching cable news, you realize you can actually detect the transition from hard news to analysis — aka newsertainment — by listening for the following phrase: “Now, obviously, we don’t want to speculate….” That disclaimer is then usually followed by rampant speculation from guests, experts, consultants and strategists, many of whom are not only on the payroll of whatever news outlet you’re watching, but are double-dipping by drawing a second salary from a group or organization that has an axe to grind in the assignment of motive.)
In thinking the press’s own motives through you also realize that since motive can never truly be explained or proven, it can thus be endlessly pursued for apparent cause and clandestine profit. Precisely because mass killings and other violent crimes often trigger unease if not outright concern for personal safety in the general public, it is almost always possible to attract an audience by purporting to explain some new detail or facet of a prior bloodbath. In effect, the urge to know is an itch that will never abate even when perpetually scratched — or when continually aggravated by the press.
Because the itch of uncertainty about any crime never fully resolves — and that holds for the entire back catalog of human violence throughout history — news organizations are incentivized to produce follow-up reports, dramatizations, new forensic looks at old investigations, and endless syndicated shows that purport to explain the truth about something that can never actually be known. In doing so they may even collectively elevate some tragedies to the level of celebrity, turning crimes and criminals into brands that can be resold when there’s a lull in new deaths. No fresh blood running in the streets? Well then, let’s all watch John F. Kennedy get his head blown off again. And Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald again. After which we can speculate about whether Oswald or Ruby acted alone. Then, for a nightcap, we can watch Marilyn sing heartfelt birthday wishes to JFK, followed by wild speculation about how she died.
One obvious criticism of crime news is that no matter how responsibly such events are covered, reporting on serial killers and mass murderers glorifies acts of violence. While you are personally confident most people view such content the way you do, with a mix of morbid curiosity and revulsion, you understand that at any given time an admittedly small segment of the audience might be thinking about going into the serial-killing or mass-murder business themselves. For those individuals, true-crime entertainment produced by news divisions may be the functional equivalent of lifestyle marketing. Indeed, what better way to motivate someone to create mayhem than producing cinematic-grade docudramas that use hand-held, first-person point-of-view cameras, mood lighting and intense music to project would-be murderers into the minds of the infamous killers they already admire and want to emulate?
That even the crassest members of the press would celebrate and glorify violence in order to make money is a truly ugly thought, but in only moments you prove the veracity of the premise to yourself. While it takes you less than a minute to come up with a list of five serial or mass murderers, after several hours you are unable to come up with the names of five victims of those killers. In a loving world you would hope the victims would be remembered and the killers forgotten, but as you’ve come to realize there’s no money to be made in remembering the dead, and as often as not it’s the press that decides what we collectively remember.
If you’re turning real-world murders into entertainment, the last thing you want to do is remind your audience that whatever itch they’re scratching came at the expense of real human beings who lost their lives in moments of unrelenting terror and agonizing pain, to say nothing of a stomach-churning admixture of bodily fluids. Better to ignore such details, as well as how those murders affected family and friends, coworkers, first responders, investigators, healthcare professionals who may have worked to save the victims, and even members of the press themselves — though they are, thankfully, ethically bound to remain emotionally neutral lest the impartiality of the noble fourth estate be questioned.
The irony of this concern — that press coverage, which routinely morphs into entertainment by design, might in some way trigger violent acts — is not lost on you. It is in fact the same charge that news organization freely level against other potential causal agents of violence. Yet even after coldly profiting from the assertion that one motive or another must be responsible for a given act of violence, as soon as the hot light of suspicion falls on the press itself — in large part for giving killers more free publicity and celebrity than they could ever accrue on their own over the lifetimes of all the people they’ve killed — the press not only indignantly shields itself from blame using the pretext of journalistic integrity and the constitutionally protected right to make money however it sees fit, but does so safe in the knowledge that such causality can never be proved.
It is in fact possible if not likely that news organizations, in some instances, have contributed to if not instigated acts of violence that would otherwise not have taken place — live riot coverage being but one obvious example. Yet because such cause and effect can never be proven to a certainty, and the news business knows it can never be proven — even as it hypocritically refuses to admit that no proof of causality will ever connect the people or groups it routinely blames for acts of violence on behalf of its traumatized or bloodthirsty audience — the press can continue to speculate about motive and dramatize crimes and produce step-by-step guides that detail how to kill other human beings singly or in clusters, profiting every step of the way. Everybody else is always under suspicion, the press is always above suspicion, and indignantly so.
Surveying recent reports about mass killings you notice that the motive du jour seems to be mental illness, which makes a certain kind of obvious sense. The premise of a great deal of attendant journalistic analysis — meaning speculation — seems to be that the blood-splattered remains of innocent victims are the fault of a mental health system that is either broken or falling down on the job. While little more than another perfectly honed rhetorical gambit that will never be resolved for what are now obvious reasons, you decide to consider the merits of the question yourself because you are intent on preventing as much carnage as possible.
Next: Mental Health and Motive
— Mark Barrett