Thursday, August 27, 2015

Is This Clip Really Necessary?

This article is a good example of bad punditry.  "If we watch the Virginia TV shooting is the suspected shooter 'winning'?" asks the headline.  First off, it seems to me that referring to the killer as "suspected" is over-scrupulous.  Even if he hadn't bragged about the killings online, he's dead by his own hand, so leaving out "suspected" or "alleged" isn't going to prejudice his chances in court.  Second, since he is dead, he's not going to "win."  He's not even going to enjoy the notoriety he sought and gained.

Myself, I'm not really interested in watching it. Whether the shooter "wins" or not doesn't interest me either.  (There are echoes here of the "If we do X or don't do Y, the terrorists have won" trope that became ubiquitous after 9/11.  It quickly became the target of well-deserved mockery; so should its use in this case.)  I'm more interested in asking those who do watch it: Why? I think the burden of argument lies on anyone who says I should watch it. Do they have any good reasons, as opposed to mere voyeurism?

Mary McNamara, the LA Times writer of this piece, is very high-minded.
Obviously murder is not entertainment, and it's difficult to believe that anyone would be viewing or sharing the videos for entertainment's sake. News outlets did not show the space shuttle Challenger explode repeatedly on a minute-by-minute basis, or the Twin Towers fall over and over again, for entertainment's sake.

We do not watch news reports in which police brutalize teenagers or armies level villages for entertainment's sake. We watch to see what happened. We watch because no amount of aftermath reporting or narrative reconstruction captures an event with more power and clarity than video footage.
I don't think McNamara knows why "we" watch this stuff any more than I do.  My own take is that I'm only interested in watching video of events that are contested, and often not even then.  I never watched the clips of the Twin Towers falling, for example, because there wasn't any doubt that they had fallen.  And when some people I knew told me I must watch them, they were explicit that they watched them, and wanted me to watch, to stoke their fury against the dirty Arabs who'd done it so that they could support Bush's call for vengeance against people who hadn't done it.  There was nothing in those videos that told me or anyone else who was responsible for the attacks or what should be done about them.  But they were spectacular.  It looks to me like the clips of the killing of Alison Parker and Alan Ward are being used for similar purposes, without a better rationale.

There's a piece at the Guardian which is even worse.  "The man who craved an audience, according to his colleagues, forced America to watch," writes Matthew Teague.  Funny -- I'm an American, and I didn't watch the original broadcast, which was on a local TV station, and so not seen by "America" until the national media picked it up.  I didn't see that either, because I don't watch TV news.  But if anyone "forced America" to watch, it was the national media.  It was their choice; no one forced them.  Anytime journalists claim that it's their duty to run with a sensational story of dubious news value, it's time to be skeptical.  Is it also news when the US government targets whistleblowers and journalists, by jailing them or by killing them, in order to suppress stories our rulers don't want told?  Not so much.  Remember too the "Collateral Damage" video released by Wikileaks, which I did watch.  Americans need to see it to be made to face what their government, their armed forces, and their tax dollars are doing; but our news media mostly weren't interested.  In general, US atrocities aren't news.

I have little patience -- well, none -- when people claim to be victims of the media, manipulated or even "forced" to watch them, their minds controlled, etc.  They have many options, which they mostly don't exercise.  Sometimes they (and I'm talking about liberals and progressives here) demand that the government control the media so they would have to tell the truth.  The government, of course, is impartial and would guarantee that We the People are protected from media lies.  It's telling that these bold critical thinkers are so willing to abandon their responsibility for informing themselves and give it to the government.

So, I haven't yet seen any good reason why I should watch the clips of the killing of Alison Parker and Alan Ward.  Í'm not persuaded that people want to watch such videos out of a disinterested desire to know what happened.  That doesn't mean that people shouldn't watch them; I only ask that they interrogate their own motives with the same skepticism they'd apply to the motives of other people.  I know, I ask too much.