Why does TV news treat mass shootings like entertainment? 

Society of the Spectacle

The frequency and number of mass shootings in America increases with the passing of each year. In the last two decades, these shootings have become so commonplace that they rarely reach national prominence unless the number of fatalities enters the double digits or they occur in a place once thought safe — a church, a medical office, a school. Since the shootings themselves are sadly no longer newsworthy, we've decided to turn these occurrences into another type of spectacle.

It begins on cable news with "breaking news" about a "situation" involving a firearm with "multiple casualties" from "an unknown number of assailants." And in the hours that follow, the cable stations will predictably go through the differing stages of reporting a tragedy, which often includes going to local reporters who regularly prove they will talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. They'll also begin reporting on the wildly different "reports" they find on the internet. The best part? If they're wrong, the Ivory Tower Masters of Media Manipulation can now hide behind the veil of "developing events" as a means to protect themselves from charges that they reported inaccurate information. This rush to report any new tidbit is troublesome — and intoxicating. After all, why wait until tomorrow or next week for a full and accurate account of a story when you can sit in front of a television and hear hours worth of rumor, innuendo, and unsubstantiated nonsense instead?

At some point, the reporting shifts gears from making guesses about the death toll to making guesses as to the identity of the shooter and his or her motives. This is the point where the public and the pundits and the politicians get to play pin the shooting on the ideology, and they do so with almost universally disastrous results. Motive, after all, is a powerful piece of the criminal justice puzzle.

As humans, our brains seek reasons for things to happen, and we find those reasons in almost everything, whether they're true or not. Our earliest spoken and written traditions sought to explain the motives behind everything from birth to death and back again. It's easy to see how motive became part of what it takes to effectively prosecute a crime in our legal system.

But motive takes a backseat in some crimes, especially in a mass shooting. A murder during a robbery is much easier to explain to a jury than someone who walks into a crowded public place and begins opening fire indiscriminately. And for every motive given to explain such a crime, there are people ready to passionately explain why that's not the actual reason. In the end, they're all pretty much right.

After some of the more recent shootings, the motive portion of the media circus went through its own set of stages. Was this a right-winger fed up with the government for any one of a thousand reasons? Was this ISIS? Could it be a transgendered left-wing activist, a possibility raised by Sen. Ted Cruz that offers further proof that he's just an absolute jackass of a human being?

When it comes to mass shootings, motive needs to be assigned because it provides a convenient talking point for one group of Americans to use against another group. It's usually, but not always, the same meaningless "left versus right" rhetoric that's used in the same way school rivalries are used to sell tickets to the Big Game. It's a method of forcing people to make irrational choices about their fellow citizens. And it only serves to hide a larger truth.

Violence is not new to the American experience. Our nation was founded on violence, as our European ancestors came here and displaced indigenous people in favor of a new culture. Around 200 years later, colonists representing the revolution in America violently attacked British public officials, terrorizing agents of the king. After the Revolutionary War came rebellions against the new American elites. Then there was westward expansion with another round of displacing native cultures and the Civil War.

Then came the violence against the labor movement and anarchists throwing bombs, the two World Wars and a Great Depression. Then came America's entrance into a permanent state of war, first as a cold war with the Soviet Union and later with threats from countless other rogue nations after the collapse of the USSR. In the meantime, there was Vietnam, a bloodbath overseas that led to a period of domestic terrorism in this country during the 1960s and '70s. Once the left-wing bombings ended, right-wing militias began to rise in the late '80s and early '90s.

We have never been a peaceful country, and that, not what religion a murderer follows or what political views he holds, is what we need to come to terms with.


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