WARNING: The following contains material that may be disturbing to some journalists.
As news broke early Wednesday morning about the deadly shooting of a reporter and cameraman near Roanoke, Virginia, CNN and others began their now predictable routine of censoring themselves.
What made this incident especially newsworthy was that it occurred during a live broadcast on the morning show at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke.
I came across the story online shortly after 9 a.m. and flicked on CNN, which is my habit when news is happening in the United States.
Anchor Carol Costello gives me the basics, says CNN has video of the shooting, but will only air it “once an hour.”
Why? She didn’t say.
I switch over to MSNBC. Anchor Jose Diaz-Balart says: “NBC has decided not to show the video of the time the shots were fired.”
Back at CNN, just after 10 a.m. – time for the once-an-hour video – Costello issues the warning that what we are about to see is “tough to watch.” She suggests the more sensitive souls “leave the room.”
What we see in the video is reporter Alison Parker interviewing a woman at a recreation area. Then, several pops are heard, Parker screams and begins to flee.
The tape cuts back to the WDBJ studio, where the anchor says: “Okay, not sure what happened there.”
Agreed. You need to know the story to understand what transpired.
In any case, it’s hardly tough to watch. There’s nothing in the video that approaches the gore depicted in every shootout in every prime-time cop show on every network every night.
Soon, the focus on CNN turns to a new image – recorded on the fallen camera. It’s the face of a man pointing a gun.
There is now effusive praise for the dead cameraman, Adam Ward, accompanied by a comforting, speculative narrative: Was his final act capturing his killer?
Meanwhile, there has been an 11 o’clock shift change at CNN – and another piece of news to fret over.
Kate Bolduan assumes the anchor chair and is talking to CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter when we learn the killer has sent a message on Twitter: “I filmed the shooting see Facebook.”
Says Stelter: “Don’t think we will play at least the shooting part,”
“Absolutely not,” declares Bolduan.
Bolduan and Stelter inform us they have watched the shooter’s home movie when we weren’t looking.
But, she says, “We will not be showing the video. It is horrific.”
After the next shift change, at noon, anchor Ashleigh Banfield announces: “CNN is not showing video of that (original WDBJ footage) any longer.”
Why? She doesn’t say.
As for the shooter-eye pictures, she reiterates CNN’s adult supervision of the coverage and also follows her predecessor’s script: “I saw this video. It is horrific.”
Stelter at about 2:30 p.m.: “We watched a murder on Twitter today and on Facebook.”
Well, you all did. But I was watching CNN.
This self-censorship was presented in a sickeningly self-congratulatory manner, as if TV news outlets are acting in the best interest of the viewer. Thanks, Mommy.
The consistently overwrought coverage seemed out of character for someone who came to CNN not that long ago from the New York Times, where he had been a sidekick to David Carr and featured in the documentary Page One.
But Stelter’s TV makeover appeared complete on this day, particularly in an on-air judgment/apology: “We should keep in mind, as we cover the story, we have to cover the gunman, we have to talk about him. We also should keep in mind, he wanted this attention, he was seeking this attention. And I know that’s in my mind as we talk about him and cover the news today.”
It was more of the same on the U.S. evening network newscasts.
On ABC World News Tonight, substitute anchor George Stephanopoulos confessed: “Something we wrestled with today – whether to grant the gunman his last wish by playing his video. We will not.”
On the CBS Evening News, it was fill-in anchor Jane Pauley who said, “We won’t show you the most graphic part of the shooting.” They didn’t come close.
NBC gazed even deeper into its navel, with Lester Holt saying, “We’re going to be very careful about what images we show you tonight.” It did not broadcast either video.
Instead, the networks and the cable-news outlets quickly pivoted to what has become a cliché script: We’re going to focus on the victims. Even call them by their first names.
Never mind that the most interesting aspect of these shootings is always: Who was this guy? And why did he do it?
(Vester Lee Flanagan II, before he killed himself, left behind more confessions and rationalizations than a Catholic priest hears in a year.)
Or is another nutcase with a gun now also a cliché in the United States?
I’m not suggesting TV news go the full Paddy Cheyefsky in Network:
“We could make a series of it, Suicide of the Week,” says news chief Max Schumacher. “Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? Execution of the Week.”
“Terrorist of the Week,” anchorman Howard Beale suggests.
“I love it,” says Schumacher. “Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: The Death Hour. A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It’d wipe that fuckin’ Disney right off the air.”
In the 21st century, I guess such programming is better left to Hollywood and children playing video games.