November 8, 2003

WHY WE DON’T TRUST THE NEWS: I’ve had the same kind of experience that Roger Ebert recounts here:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Sometimes I get interviewed by people who genuinely want to understand something. Just as often, I get interviewed by people who have their story already planned, and just want me to utter the appropriate sound bite for the slot they’ve selected. They become quite disappointed if I don’t do that. And I think my experience is pretty typical — and that in this media-fied age, it’s shared by a lot of other people.

UPDATE: Michael Barone emails:

Your posting on media interviews brought to mind a comment by the late Massachusetts Congressman James Burke, a Ways and Means Committee member who once said, “You only need to know two things here: shoes and Social Security.” Burke was asked about a young liberal House member. “That guy,” he said, sighing. “He thinks this place is on the level.”

So it goes with most TV news interviews. When bookers used to call to ask me what I thoughtabout some issue I didn’t want to talk about it, I would say, “Gee, that’s not a very interesting issue. I don’t think I have anything to say about it.” They hung up very quickly.

Another reader adds: “Unfortunately, Ebert’s experience does not just apply to the media. I learned in graduate school working on my Ph.D. that this is the way most social scientists approach their work.” Sigh.