Mass Communication Theory Foundations, Ferment, and Future


At around half past nine on the morning of April 16, 2007, a deranged young man gunned down two students in a dormitory at Virginia Tech University. He would later that day use his automatic weapons to kill thirty more people on that idyllic campus. Between the two attacks, however, the shooter took the time to mail a package to NBC News. Arriving at the broadcast network’s New York headquarters at eleven in the morning two days later, the parcel included a twentyfive- minute self-made videotape and forty-three photographs. Accompanying these visuals, all featuring the angry, gun- and knife-wielding murderer, was a twentythree- page manifesto. The network debated what to do with this material. By six o’clock that night, the regularly scheduled start of its evening national news program, NBC’s news professionals had made their decision. That night’s coverage of the rampage included two minutes of video, seven photographs, and thirty-seven sentences from the written screed. “We hit the brake pedal,” said NBC News president Steve Capus. Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News, admitted that his own family could not watch the repeatedly shown images. But he added, “However uncomfortable it is, it proves this was journalism. This was news and a material advance in the story.” Not only was it “journalism,” offered Capus, but in showing restraint in the airing of the images, writings, and video of the murder, NBC practiced “good journalism” (NBC President, 2007). The airing was proper, said NBC’s Capus, “The news-value question is long gone. Every journalist is united on this” (in Gizbert, 2007).

Not every journalist. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) did not air any of the NBC footage. CBC news chief Tony Burman explained:

[NBC’s] handling of these tapes was a mistake. As I watched last night, sickened as I’m sure most viewers were, I imagined what kind of impact this broadcast would have on similarly deranged people. In horrific but real ways, this is their 15 seconds of fame. I had this awful and sad feeling that there were parents watching these excerpts on NBC who were unaware that they will lose their children in some future copycat killing triggered by these broadcasts. (in Gizbert, 2007)

Media critic Todd Gitlin was likewise saddened by NBC’s coverage. He wrote that killers like the Virginia Tech gunman are “endlessly bitter men” who “turn themselves into walking arsenals.” Gitlin continued:

They turn themselves into broadcasters as well. These killers are in the communication business. They will send messages to prove that they are not, after all, tiny. They claim recognition as giants, virulent in their potency. They are going to force the whole world to suffer their purported greatness. And the means toward this end are double: The killers are going to kill whomever they please, and they are going to make the rest of the world know it.

Having left behind a record of depravity, the killer is then going to exit. He will vanish into an eternity of fame. As his markers, he will leave corpses behind. He will be unforgettable—not only a killer, but a great killer. And in a world saturated with media, a great killer must also be a famous killer. Notoriety is immortality. So to complete his glorious task, he turns to his accomplices—the media…. The broadcasters do not share the killer’s purpose, exactly, but they serve it. (Gitlin, 2007) How did the broadcasters “serve” the killer’s purpose? On the day of the shooting, both CBS and NBC News sent their best-known personalities, their prime-time anchors, to the campus for “live reporting,” guaranteeing increased viewership. To heighten the drama, all news networks—broadcast and cable—repeatedly used onscreen graphics declaring the senseless murders a “massacre” and a “bloodbath.” “This story didn’t need any sensationalism,” said ABC News senior vice president Paul Slavin, “but people are always looking for that extra rating point” (in Grossman, 2007, p. 15). How would you balance “that extra rating point” against the very real possibility of a copycat killer? After all, the Virginia Tech gunman gave credit in the video he mailed to NBC to the Columbine High School killers as his “comrades in rejection.”

Modern media-saturated society is rife with conflicts such as this. They may appear to be less dramatic, but given the central role our media system plays in the conduct of our lives and the maintenance of our democracy, their resolution is no less significant. Here is a recent sampling. The Kaiser Family Foundation issued a report entitled Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States, identifying snack and fast-food advertising as a major contributor to childhood obesity and calling for restrictions on this type of marketing (Kaiser, 2007). Pediatricians, teachers, parents, and politicians quickly took up the cause, but better parental supervision would obviate the need for government intrusion, said marketers.

A battle also erupted between journalists calling for investigations into the mistreatment of detainees during the “War on Terror” and those who thought it unwise. The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan insisted that as the voice of the people, the media had an obligation to investigate the “pre-eminent moral question in American politics,” the “question of torture—and the United States’ embrace of inhumanity as a core American value” (2009). Salon’s Glenn Greenwald commented on what he saw as the media’s failure: “It should be emphasized that yet again, it is not the Congress or the establishment media which is uncovering these abuses and forcing disclosure of government misconduct. Rather, it is the ACLU [and] other human rights organizations that has had to fill the void left by those failed institutions” (2009b). But syndicated columnist Peggy Noonan countered, telling ABC News, “Some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking” (in Alterman, 2009a, p. 10), and Chuck Todd, Chief White House Correspondent and political director for NBC News, called investigations into the torture and death of hundreds of detainees little more than “cable catnip” (in Kapur, 2009). There was even controversy over many outlets’ refusal to use the word torture when describing methods used by American interrogators that when used by foreign countries they readily labeled as such (Drum, 2009).

In 2009, Congress and the public demanded to know why the media had missed the looming financial crisis that devastated the world economy. Many accused the media, enthralled by powerful CEOs and their companies’ advertising dollars, of abetting the disaster (Starkman, 2009). Financial reporters countered, “No one knew; they lied to us; we’re only as good as our sources” (Mitchell, 2009, p. 16).

The New York Times kept secret for eight months the abduction in Afghanistan of its reporter David Rohde, enlisting forty other news organizations in the news blackout. After Rohde escaped, “a major debate ignited in and out of the journalism community about how responsible the coordinated secret had been. Was sitting on a story for so long mainly because a colleague was involved a breach of journalistic ethics” (Strupp, 2009, p. 6)?

Here’s another controversial issue. The Associated Press distributed a horrifying photograph of a Marine in Afghanistan, badly wounded and dying. Several papers ran the image; Americans must see the real cost of war, they reasoned. They were attacked as unpatriotic. Just as many outlets refused to use the photograph, agreeing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that publishing the image was disrespectful and compassionless (McMichael, 2009). They were attacked as Pentagon apologists.

Two more examples: The Washington Post announced “salons” where, for a fee, “stakeholders” in the critical topics of the day could engage in “news-driven and off-the-record conversation” with its reporters (Wasserman, 2009), and a Columbia, South Carolina, newspaper, The State, revealed that it had been holding e-mail messages sent between Governor Mark Sanford and his Argentinean lover for six months before the adulterous affair was ultimately revealed (Arango and Stelter, 2009).

Despite seemingly well-reasoned journalistic explanations for each of these actions, each was met with fierce challenge. These controversies are not easily resolved, and perhaps they should not be. Each houses the conflict between our basic belief in freedom of press and expression and our desire to build a humane, meaningful society in which all people can live safely and with dignity. As we saw in Chapter 3, this conflict is not new, nor is the question of whose values should prevail in its resolution. This is precisely why we value our First Freedom: it protects (or should protect) the resolving debate. As we saw in Chapter 4, in the first half of the twentieth century many people inside and outside the media industries were so mistrustful of the people and the press that curtailment of our freedom of press and expression had significant support among many elites. Who could blame them?

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