In journalism it’s called the, “out there syndrome,” meaning that, if something is already, “out there” and being reported, instead of independently verifying it, news agencies feel free to run with it. Following Friday’s ghastly shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, Ryan Lanza’s name got out there, and bouncing through the media’s echo chamber for hours, it was repeated ad-nauseum, incorrectly naming him as the Sandy Hook shooter.
There’s a saying in journalism and it goes, “check the freezer.” Each semester, thousands of college freshman enrolled in journalism programs nationwide hear it for the first time, and since 2006, have been taught to memorize it. It’s shorthand for taking the extra step of verifying something before reporting it as fact. During Hurricane Katrina, when rapes and killings at the Convention Center were reported en masse, roaming gangs of hurricane refugees were reportedly stalking the Convention Center, shooting at rescue workers, and murdering at will. Supposedly, the remains of their handiwork ended up deposited in a meat locker that was reported to contain between 40-50 frozen corpses. Problem was, all of the garish stories emanating from the Convention Center at the time, all turned out to be third and fourth hand accounts about how someone’s cousin said they talked to someone who had seen the bodies in the freezer. Turns out, no one ever actually checked. There were no roaming death squads, no bodies in the freezer; none of it was true.
In a thoughtful piece excoriating the media’s coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting, the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik blasts journalists, calling it, “high school journalism.” Incensed, Zurawik pleaded his case on CNN’S “Reliable Sources,” a media watchdog program hosted by Howard Kurtz, in a segment called, “The Media and the Massacre,” and was aghast, “how could Ryan Lanza be the dead shooter if he’s alive and posting on his Facebook?” he said. Supposedly, a law enforcement officer on the scene told a journalist that the real shooter, Adam Lanza was found with his brother Ryan’s identification on him, triggering the initial false reports and rampant speculation that surfaced surrounding the killer’s identity. The media linked to the kid’s Facebook, but instead of just linking to it, they should have monitored it, clipped a picture from it, shown it to cops, gotten a confirmation, and in short, just checked the freezer!
Now, imagine one of those parents driving to up to Sandy Hook to find out if their kid is alive, and in those frantic few minutes in the car leading up to that moment, the news is irresponsibly reporting all kinds of erroneous death tallies. Now suddenly, someone’s everything sadly hinges on the accuracy of a news report. In the opening hours following the tragedy, competing news agencies were running contradictory and fluctuating body counts like they were ticking off back and forth scores to a football game. On the radio, 1010 WINS repeatedly cited the number of deceased as 27, with 18 of those victims being children. On cable news, CNN reported 20 dead, 10 of them children, while a network newscast from CBS incorrectly listed the number of dead at 26, with eight of the victims being of adult age. Without regard for the parents or family members of the slain victims who might be in the listening audience, swelling body counts that seemed to double in a span less than two minutes, depending on which news station you followed, no doubt dashed the hopes of many, and wrongly lifted those of others.
Also, this type of media myth building and errant reporting inevitably leaves the door wide open for bug eyed conspiracists like the, “Idaho Picker,” to hawk his spin. With over 100,000 views on his YouTube channel and counting, The Picker does however, inadvertently make a good case for malfeasance via errant reporting. The material he posts in the video is a combination of screen shots mashed up with live reportage from some of the earliest reporting on the scene; replete with The Picker’s twangy narrative. Exhibit A is an AP video of police who appear to have someone in custody in the woods behind the school. Exhibit B, is an interview with a first grader who claims he saw another man pinned down outside of the school with cuffs on. Now, tying those disparate bits together with information that Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza, being somehow connected to the Aurora shooter’s father, Robert Holmes via looming testimony the two were scheduled to give in front of Congress over the controversial LIBOR banking scandal, and Voila! Courtesy of The Picker and his minions, the tragedy at Sandy Hook suddenly transforms into a CIA put-up job with three shooters. The police are lying, the government is lying, and the media is covering it up. When errant reporting stands uncorrected, this is the result.
Now, for all of the public awareness campaigns media outlets profess to promote (an act itself likely inspired from superficial motives governed by hypersensitive political correctness) news casters, in their feeble attempts to create an on air psychological profile of the killer, managed to hurl the public’s understanding of individuals with autism back into the stone age. The amount of times I had to hear the word, “autism” linked with the phrase, “mental illness,” and be subjected to anchors like Wolf Blitzer quizzing mental health experts to determine for the audience if an “autistic” person is capable of committing high levels of premeditated violence is, aside from absurd sounding, borderline trashy reality t.v. exhibitionism. First of all, a person isn’t “autistic,” they have autism. Secondly, as for it being a disorder or a mental illness with violent features, in the wake of an unfolding national tragedy, Americans don’t have the stomach, or the time to sit and watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta educate Wolf Blitzer on the glaring distinctions.
Lastly, Zurawihits right on target in his article criticizing MSNBC wag, Alex Wagner for prostituting (my word not his) her newscast to shill for Democrats who want stricter gun control measures on the books. Look, if a news program, cable or otherwise, wishes to invite someone like NY Representative Carolyn McCarthy on the show because her husband was tragically gunned down in 1993 on a LIRR commuter train by spree shooter Colin Ferguson, and as an outspoken critic in the Congress on lax gun laws is in a position to actually effect legislation on this front, it would be newsworthy and merit attention. However, when it’s the host injecting the topic of gun control into our national discourse by pretending to moderate some made for t.v. argument pitting Tea Party activists and Democratic bloggers against one another with gun rights as the chew toy, passing it all off as if it’s some type of legitimate debate on the 2nd Amendment, it’s no wonder that a lot of Americans aren’t embarrassed to admit that they get their news from Jon Stewart’s, “The Daily Show.”
Finally, during a press conference on Friday, a slightly bewildered medical examiner was asked by a reporter, “what were the children wearing?” Bristling, he guffawed, “they were wearing cute kids’ stuff. Stuff you’d dress your kids, or your grandkids in for the first grade.” Now that’s bleeding edge journalism in action.
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