And nothing illustrates that fact more than the most recent incident indicting our national obsession with arming ourselves to the teeth: the on-air shooting of a news reporter and a cameraman in Virginia. Here is yet another example of how nearly unrestricted access to guns enables senseless crimes of violence. Here is, at the same time, yet another example of our unwillingness to face the problem directly, and instead focus on a distraction that allows us to ignore our own complicity with the latest round of senseless murders.
That distraction involves the New York Daily News, once the undisputed king of tabloid journalism in America and now, like all newspapers, fighting for its journalistic life in an electronic, digital media age. The Daily News has a rich history of publishing crime photography, much of it not the sort of stuff that's easy to take when you're eating breakfast or riding the subway. You have only to look at the work of Weegee, the most celebrated photographer of New York's Golden Age of print media, to know what I'm talking about. (And, if you know nothing about Weegee, you owe it to yourself to get to know his work, starting here.) Then again, nothing makes the point about the Daily News and edgy photography quite like publishing a photo of an electrocuted woman on the paper's front page.
The Daily News extended that tradition of edginess into the present in its coverage of the Virginia story, by publishing on its cover three photos derived from the video of the crime taken by the murderer and posted on his Facebook account before he committed suicide. As a consequence, the tabloid came under fire itself for using the photos, as did the New York Post for likewise publishing stills from the video. Both papers were accused of sensationalizing a tragedy, as compared to seemingly more responsible media outlets that chose not to use the video in any way at all. You can read a little more about that debate here.
That link, which will take you to a New York Times article, also includes the Daily News' defense of its publication of the photos as "part of the story, however disturbing and horrific." The paper also, through a spokesperson, expressed the hope of its editors that the images would help to build support for better, more sensible gun regulation that would prevent tragedies like the Virginia shootings.
You know what?
I think the Daily News got it right.
It's easy to take the clean-fingered, prissy approach that the media's job is to protect the public from disturbing news. It's exactly what one would expect in an era when the news has just become another consumption commodity whose profits matter more than its truth. It's an indictment of how we view the Fourth Estate: as an outlet not for what the public needs to know, but for what the public's corporate masters wants the public to believe.
And the NRA, along with the gun manufactures that support it, are among those corporate masters. You can't possibly expect them to want gun owners and potential buyers to see the actual consequences of gun ownership and use. It's a lot more fun to twist and distort the meaning of the Second Amendment, so long as doing so helps the bottom line.
As for refusing to show the video, on the grounds that it would be some sort of publicity reward for the murderer? Sorry, but that's a boundary you cross the minute you decide to make this a leading story. You can't unring the bell at that point. You can, however, show the consequences of the real story that you've chosen to ignore--our national obsession with enabling acts of violent rage.
Guns are awful. Guns kill. Guns destroy lives in horrible, painful ways, and leave behind the agony of survivors--many of them children--who are left to ask Why? Maybe it's at least partly because we like to pretend that violence isn't so bad, that's it's just a way of dealing with our anger, like playing a video game.
Maybe it's time we stop pretending. And maybe, just maybe, the Daily News' decision to publish the video stills is a step in the direction of doing just that. Maybe seeing the consequences of a nation flooded with guns is what we need to end the flood.