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Spiritual Laryngitis

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I have not posted at my blog, "A Model Media Ecologist," since the tragic events that occurred last Monday at Virginia Polytechic Institute for a number of reasons. Since frequent posting seems to be the life’s blood of blogging, I think it is appropriate and necessary to explore why I haven’t posted.

The first reason might be called spiritual laryngitis. Like Melville’s Billy Budd, my first reaction to any severe emotional shock is loss of voice. I mean this quite literally. It is not only that I am not sure what to say, but also that I am quite unable to say anything at all. I sweat and strain, but my larynx remains frozen. As the parent of college-age children, my identification with those left to mourn is strong. I truly identify with them and the senseless loss they are experiencing. The primary cause of my inability to speak is grief.

Second is the foreboding sense that this has happened before and, quite likely, it will happen again. Our country has neither the political will to control gun availability nor the compassion towards the mentally ill to fully support appropriate treatment. My paralyzed reaction to this disaster and my shock in the face of the incomprehensible is also due to latent, inexpressible anger.

In terms of typing a post to my blog, this paralysis extends to the part of my brain that allows me to compose my thoughts for writing and enter them into my computer. What is the appropriate thing to say in the face of disaster? How do you express sorrow in a mass medium?

The bios I have read and seen of the killer describe him as a silent, withdrawn individual, one who appeared to have something in common with another Melville character, Bartleby the Scrivener. Bartleby brooded in silence and chose, in his despair, to end his own life. The Virginia Tech killer’s self-immolation required, for reasons we may never fathom, the inclusion of 32 innocent lives and the wounding of any equal number of others.

One way you don’t express your sorrow was illustrated by NBC this past week. NBC’s decision to air the VT killer’s video was not due to a lack of other ways to deliver the newsworthy content of the recordings. There has been quite a bit of controversy over the appropriateness and/or newsworthiness of airing the killer’s self-aggrandizing video. It was not speechlessness that required the airing of the tape. It was competitive, commercial considerations that trumped a sense of decency and an acknowledgement of the damage such a viewing might cause, both to the families of the victims and to the country at large.

In reacting to this tragedy we tap more deeply the sense of astonishment and outrage we experienced during the Don Imus imbroglio. Imus, who certainly has not ever experienced speechlessness, turned his mock but racist ire toward non-public, innocent Rutgers students. Accomplished young women all, they didn’t deserve such treatment for the sake of Imus’ ego or his radio ratings.

Here, I think, lies the key to the impact this event has had on many of us who have no direct connection with the Virginia Tech population. They were innocent. They were not the cause of the killer’s grievance and should not have been part of his ghastly personal catharsis. That we could react as a nation in horror of these events shows that we can still distinguish between fiction and reality, even if both are delivered to us in a mediated form.

It was also an instance of one of the major gatekeepers of television succumbing to the biases of the medium itself. Neil Postman noted that, “What is not televisable doesn't exist on TV… What gets on the news are those things for which you have film footage.” (Postman, N. "TV Has Culture by the Throat: A Conversation With Neil Postman." U.S. News and World Report, December 23, 1985. p. 58.)

While the medium of television may have a bias toward the visual, the human gatekeepers of the medium could choose not to succumb to it. One of Postman’s gifts to his students of Media Ecology is the mandate that we must adopt a moral stance to the impact of media and technology on our society and we must speak out.

Thus, in the space of one week I experienced outrage over the killings at Virginia Tech, which left me speechless, and outrage over NBC’s decision to engage in exploitation journalism, which gave me back my voice.

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About Bob

  • You know, I’m a little irked NBC didn’t stick to their guns a bit more on this video. For one, you’re right. It was a competitive practice. I think someone went on Oprah and called it “good journalism”, which whether or not you agreed with its showing, it did inform me of things I’d never have known of had it not been released. So, it was good journalism. Perhaps not very tasteful journalism, but good journalism.

    Secondly, I don’t understand why videos of any tragic event are so strictly off limits. The tragedy has occurred. The families are torn up, as are many other acquaintances. I don’t understand how video footage is going to pile much on top of what is already there. And if the video footage is pulled, do you really think it makes the grief that much easier to overcome? Video footage like that drives the point home, if you will. It gives this maniac a face, a voice, a shred of personality. Like it or not, he was a human being, and trying to stifle who he was and why he did this is as inaccurate as it is convenient. The biggest issue with the news is incomplete reporting, and pulling the video footage is a case of not giving the public all the information you have to give. Which, last I checked, was the point of the news. Thankfully the internet medium and its many advantages means I can Youtube the clip, should I wish to see it. And for some, the desire to see it is in some ways as valid as it is for others to not see it. So where do you compromise? I don’t know. I don’t have that particular answer. But I don’t think hiding the news away in a box is the right way to go about it. Let the tragedy in all its terrible grandeur be laid bare. It might help the healing for some. It might be a wake up call to others. And, at the least, it is fair, complete journalism.

  • Robert K. Blechman

    There are a number of reasons why I don’t think that NBC’s decision was good journalism. First, the video, which may be of interest to psychologists, did not further the story. Instead, it just gave the killer additional posthumous notoriety. By sending the video to NBC, the killer was attempting to frame the narrative of the massacre to his own ends. Anything relevant that the video contained could have been described without letting the perpetrator control the story.

    In addition, for anyone who really needed to see the video itself, there is always Youtube or other places to go. Whether they intended it or not, by showing the video NBC legitimized the killer, trivialized his victims, and perhaps provided an incentive for another disturbed individual to seek his or her own 15 minutes of fame.

    The mainstream media continually controls our access to the all the information connected to a story. We see very little of the war going on in Iraq. The continuing suffering experienced by the residents of New Orleans has dropped off of our radar. The high crimes and misdemeanors of the President and Vice President are barely mentioned.

    If NBC had determined that showing the video would lead to a boycott of their programming, a loss of advertisers and a decline in revenue, do you think they would still have shown it? Probably not. This wasn’t a case of our need to know. There was no journalistic necessity to air the video, just sensationalism in search of profits.

  • ” The mainstream media continually controls our access to the all the information connected to a story. We see very little of the war going on in Iraq. The continuing suffering experienced by the residents of New Orleans has dropped off of our radar.”

    This is exactly what I’m talking about. If you watch the International version of CNN, you’ll find that they just have more footage on these topics, particularly Iraq due to its heavy international implications. Overhere though, any gritty footage is deemed inappropriate or insensitive. What’s that they say about a picture being worth a thousand words?

    You’re correct; these news providers do have access to all the information, and get to show what they see fit, or what will draw ratings. And, just like ratings drove that video on to TV’s the nation ’round, ratings probably drove it off again. I’m guessing NBC received some pressure from sponsors due to the public backlash around the video, and that’s why they pulled it, although I have no quickly citable evidence to support this. In the same way CBS received pressure from its sponsors to get Imus off the air, and it was that, not his comments about those basketball players, that lead to his much publicized pink slip. I suspect a similar chain of command here.

    But I digress. We can either let the news pick and choose what they see fit to show, or we can try to promote just having everything. Videos of Iraq and New Orleans would probably be no more pleasant for some than the video we’re discussing, but it would be the complete coverage that I, for one, feel we deserve. The mainstream media has proven itself very poor choosers of what videos should and should not be shown. So take the disgression out of their hands. Show it all.

    Regarding the video footage inspiring others to follow in Cho’s footsteps… Possibly, I suppose. I daresay without the video he had a pretty legit amount of attention, and I don’t think throwing the video in gives all that much more insentive for other nutcases that might be thinking about pulling something like this. There’s no real way to discuss that point though. For me, the complete journalism package is important enough to run the risk of someone deciding to do an encore. I think the latter has pretty long odds, and as horrible as it was, the shootings have got us talking about issues that need to be discussed. AS a college sophomore, I know I’m pretty interested in the conversations being had now about any number of topics from gun control to campus security. And, like it or not, Cho is the reason why those conversations are going on.

    Again, I ramble. Forgive me, it is pretty late here and sleep isn’t coming easily. I see where you come from on this, but I’m just not a fan of NBC choosing what is fit for me to see. It seems cleaner, simpler, and in the long run better to just show the video. It doesn’t strike me as productive to push things like this away as if they haven’t happened.