Another tragedy, another chance to go insane -- and the national media took it. Even worse news is that much of the public let itself be carried away on that big, ugly wave. Far from "honoring the dead," the tsunami-like info glut that followed the killings at Virginia Tech dishonored -- in fact, debased -- Cho Seung-Hui's victims by turning a genuine tragedy into a cheap national soap opera.
Not that we should have been surprised. I don't know which is worse -- the breathy pseudo-earnestness of the broadcasters and columnists as they invade the scene of the latest calamity, or the fact that we're all getting used to shameful voyeurism posing as news coverage. Did I say "getting used to"? I meant, "becoming addicted to."
What's new is the frequency with which the media goes into red-alert overdrive, and the public's willingness to wallow in it. Anna Nicole Smith's death was hyped to an obscene degree, only to be shoved out of the way by her lovers' DNA testing. In Charlotte, local media climbed completely over the top after two policemen were murdered (see "Overkill? What Overkill?" April 11). Oops, no time for that -- Don Imus just insulted the Rutgers women's basketball team -- get the cameras primed, the pundits caffeinated, and let's roll!
Last week, with a legitimate tragedy to milk, everyone seemed to go as crazy as Cho. News anchors turned into national grief counselors. Endless, excruciating repetitions of what few facts were known were hammered into the public brainpan, interrupted now and then by an interview with someone -- anyone -- who may have known one of the victims.
It has become almost impossible to avoid the media's excess when they get cranked up. Wherever you went last week, wherever you looked, you couldn't get away: The unrelenting, mawkish sentiments. The galleries of photos of, and info about, the victims -- these kids who, as more than one media genius noted, "didn't deserve to die." No mention was made, however, that the victims of a mass murder certainly deserved more than being cheapened and turned into a communal offering for soap addicts to salivate over.
And then there were the photos of the classrooms, the gunstore owner who "felt bad," the heavily edited reactions from a victim's father, or Frank "Billy's Boy" Graham praying with students and letting everyone know the killer had been possessed by demons. Christ, what a circus. Afterward, of course, we had to have yet more info about the shooter, his guns, his videos, his poetry, his former roommates. If that wasn't enough data, you could always tune into Anderson Cooper's "360-degree Blog." The media grotesquerie was crowned by TV news' nearly unbelievable decision to broadcast parts of Cho's enraged, psychotic ravings -- until families of the victims raised hell at this latest atrocity and forced NBC and others to back off.
Pundits leapfrogged each other in their efforts to make us see that "this is important -- and sad!" Marc Fisher of the Washington Post may have won the Overreach Award when he proclaimed that the VT killings "will hobble a generation." And a special section of hell has no doubt been set aside for the National Review's John Derbyshire and Human Events Online's Nathaniel Blake who, the day of the killings, criticized the victims for not rushing Cho and taking his guns away. Blake opined, "Something is clearly wrong with the men in our culture." I would only add, "especially with Nathaniel Blake ... and maybe Franklin Graham."
The result of the media's increasing reliance on frenzied overhype is that, eventually, every story becomes alike, with one lurid tale fading into the next. When something huge comes along, like say 33 people massacred at a university, it comes across, after the initial shock, as no more important than whatever was in last week's newsy soap opera. When Anna Nicole and Imus are given the same breathless, angst-ridden tones of voice as a mass murder, all the stories -- and the people they're about -- are degraded.
But peddling lurid tragedies is certainly cheaper than going to the trouble to fully cover, say, melting polar ice caps, or a foreign war, or the new Bush Supreme Court taking a big step down the road to overturning Roe v. Wade.
There's another thing the media could have pointed out -- loudly -- although as of the end of last week, no major news organization had touched it. It has to do with one of the two guns used by Cho Sueng-Hi. It seems that Glock 9 pistols had been outlawed in 1994 by the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, signed by President Clinton. Although studies found that after the ban, the use of assault weapons in crimes plummeted almost 70 percent, the ban wasn't renewed by Bush's Republican Congress, despite outcries from every U.S. law enforcement organization. As a result, Cho was able to buy the Glock 9 legally. If Americans want a good reason to cry, that's as good a place to start as any.