When tragedy is for sale, it isn’t tragic enough

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  • When tragedy is for sale, it isn’t tragic enough

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When tragedy is for sale, it isn’t tragic enough

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Issue Date:Tuesday April 17, 2007
Section: Editorial Section
Ry Rivard, City Editor

By the end of the Monday it was obvious that the media had begun selling the day's horrors at Virginia Tech. No matter the gravity or magnitude of a tragedy, this country's commentators veer from events as they are, in and of themselves horrible, to a decontextualized, surreal account of things so they can be sold to and consumed by us.

The shooting - the deadliest shooting in American history - quickly became, for some people, another chance to make various political points. It became, by the time Wolf Blitzer's show aired, a sort of tragic-porn, a way for the media to provoke rather than inform. Commentators tried to politicize it, politicians tried to comment on it, the news channels tried to heighten the drama with their usual parade of loud music and epic comparisons, "This is worse than ... " or "This is the biggest ... " Was what happened not enough in and of itself?

Glenn Reynolds, law professor at University of Tennessee, quickly posted a 52-page paper on his popular Weblog arguing that the best way to prevent shootings like Monday's is to permit concealed handguns. It was the day's most academic approach to the event, but it was also one of the most callous.

Written by two economists, the paper concluded that "the only policy factor to influence multiple victim public shootings is the passage of concealed handgun laws." Reynolds and several others who followed his lead took the deaths of 33 students to advance an agenda which, although done in an attempt to stop such events in the future, made them into a policy argument.

Similarly, the Drudge Report, a conservative news site, dragged out a fourth-month old story from Roanoke Times about failed piece of legislation that would have permitted concealed handguns.

It reported, "Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker was happy to hear the bill was defeated. 'I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.'"

The point was: if students hadn't had to wait for the police to arrive, Monday's shootings would have been an incident and not a tragedy. The effect of their ill-made point was that gun control advocates were somehow responsible for the shooting.

In response, the Huffington Post highlighted a story that the White House affirmed the "president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms." Their point: if only there had been a law against carrying weapons (and there is - VT's handbook doesn't permit guns on campus), this wouldn't have happened. The effect of that point was that somehow the Second Amendment or the Bush Administration was responsible for the shooting.

The politicians, meanwhile, all took care to come out and say how horrible the events were. Perhaps they thought if they didn't grandstand on TV with their condolences, someone might mistake their silence for support?

The news channels proved again that constant, breathless coverage undermines the fundamental tragedy, horror and fact of an event. CNN escalated its description of the shootings from "monumental" to a "rampage" to a "massacre," to a "bloodbath," as if their appellations signified anything but their desire to sell the story.

By Monday evening, each station had begun saying as often as possible how tragic the obvious tragedy was, and how horrible the horror was - and at the same time they plugged their own brand: "Stay tuned to us for ... " For what? For whatever scarce news they could pry from any student on the VT campus they could pull aside and, occasionally, attempt to provoke into more tears with probing, useless questions.

CNN kept mentioning their "I Reporters," which is their way of saying "people who sent us pictures from their cell phones."

If the media's reaction Monday was a sign of the American psyche, we are a country that cannot understand an event outside of a political framework, and we are a country that cannot understand an event as it is.

There were two terrible but - compared to the media's carnival barker commentary - honest accounts from Monday. The first was cell phone video footage taken outside the building of the shootings that captured the sounds of 27 shots being fired, presumably into somebody. It was replayed and replayed and, after a while, it became a selling point for CNN rather than a way to describe the day's events.

The second account, reminiscent of Sept. 11, came from a student who told ABC News, "Everyone started panicking and jumping out the window."

But there is nothing anyone can say that makes it make sense, so, from Lord Byron:

And thou art dead, as young and fair

As aught of mortal birth;

And form so soft, and charms so rare,

Too soon return'd to Earth!

Though Earth receiv'd them in her

bed,

And o'er the spot the crowd may

tread

In carelessness or mirth,

There is an eye which could not brook

A moment on that grave to look.

--

Original Source: The Daily Athenaeum
<a href="http://www.da.wvu.edu/show_article.php?&story_id=27550">http://www.da.wvu.edu/show_article.php?&story_id=27550</a>

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Ry Rivard

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2008-02-18

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Kacey Beddoes

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Leann Ray <Leann.Ray@mail.wvu.edu>

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eng

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Ry Rivard, "When tragedy is for sale, it isn’t tragic enough," in The April 16 Archive, Item #1696, http://april16archive.org/items/show/1696 (accessed July 28, 2014).