The media aren’t doing their job. We need them to stand up for us. That’s what it means to be the fourth estate. They can bring the powerful to heel, because they represent all of us. Instead, they act like lackeys, lap dogs, and lazy people who think about themselves more than they do their calling.
Let’s take Sandy Hook as an example. Reporters made a superabundance of errors in that story. The guns, including the murder weapon, were here. Then they were there. Suspects were chased down in the woods. We never saw them again, nor did the media seem to care what happened to them. The killer was Ryan Lanza, then it was Adam Lanza. Nancy Lanza worked at the school as a kindergarten teacher, then she didn’t. The car at the scene belonged to Nancy Lanza, then it belonged to someone else, then it belonged to Nancy again. The police kept all the bodies in the school until 3:00 a.m., then removed them under cover of night with no explanation, no questions asked. No forensic evidence proves Adam Lanza shot twenty-seven people inside the school, or even his mother. No questions asked.
What were the media doing that day? When I make a mistake at work, I try to reconstruct the circumstances that led to it. I try to understand why it occurred. We saw no analysis of why reporters initially misidentified the killer. We had no reasons given for so much confusion about the weapons at the scene. Forget about the car, the strangely quiet aerial photography, the children dumped on a neighbor’s lawn, the lack of security video, or any ballistic or forensic evidence to tie a particular shooter to a particular weapon. The media seemed out of touch and out to lunch, except when it came to lapping up the official story. Self important as ever, they passed it on with the assurance, “Yes, we got it right this time.” With a performance like that, and official sources who almost never tell the truth, why should we think you got it right?
The media will say well, it takes a while for the true story to settle out in a horrific situation like this one. It takes a while for the rumors to go away while we ascertain exactly what happened. That’s true. Rumors fly. But whoever thought the media were in the business of reporting rumors? And who thinks officials who point the media away from rumors toward not-rumors are trustworthy? Everyone is under pressure to get the scoop straight, and they work it out as they go. Why should we think officials can distinguish rumors from not-rumors any better than reporters can? If something is fishy or confused, officials have a big incentive to downplay those parts in favor of the simplest possible narrative.
Aren’t reporters supposed to ascertain the truth independently of what officials say? The way events unfolded on December 14, facts became facts because officials said they were true. Take the initial report that Ryan Lanza was the killer. How could a misidentification like that occur? Apparently Adam Lanza had his brother’s ID card on him. So of course people thought Adam was Ryan when they found Ryan’s card on his body. Another problem solved!
This behavior is beyond me, I’ll say that. Where is the curiosity and skepticism that investigators bring to their work? Why didn’t anyone ask why Ryan’s ID card was on his brother’s body in the first place? When was the last time Ryan and Adam were together? Why would Ryan give his brother his ID card? Was it a driver’s license? Did Ryan know his brother had his ID card? What does Ryan say about the matter?
Even more egregious was the lack of curiosity about why the police, the coroner, and every other official involved acted to keep all the bodies inside the school until three in the morning. They said they wanted to use photographs to identify victims in order to spare families additional pain. Whoever heard of such a thing? Have you? If I were a father who lost my daughter in a school shooting, I’m not sure how I would react, but I can tell you I would not let police prevent me from holding my daughter one last time without a fight. Community norms and our habitual deference to authority would make it difficult to pick a fight like that alone. In the end, local authorities were wrong to prevent grieving families from seeing their little children. It was not their decision to make. It was the parents’ decision.
Moreover, removing the bodies from the school under cover of darkness makes the decision seem extraordinarily fishy. People do things in the dark when they have something to hide. Even if they don’t have something to hide, behavior like that makes it look like they do. Yet reporters said nothing – no questions, no appeals on behalf of the parents, no challenge to the officials’ inexplicable behavior. If officials had offered parents photographs as an option, that would be explicable. To tell parents they will have no access to their little children – you have no choice about this – is high handed, callous, and suspicious.
When James Tracy, associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, questioned media behavior that day, he was pilloried. People wanted to have him fired. Anderson Cooper said Tracy’s remarks were “beyond crazy.” What is crazy about questioning a reporting job that was beyond slipshod? Tracy focused on the strangeness of the reports coming out of Newtown, yet people accused him of being inexcusably offensive.
Efforts to silence people, and to punish them when they are not silent, are troublesome. They make the silencers appear as if they actually don’t want to know the truth. To condemn Tracy is to suggest the media did a good job of communicating the truth on December 14 and afterward. It suggests the media demonstrated initiative, that they cared enough to piece together what happened that day without assistance from all those officials. Alternately, absent initiative, it suggests we should believe our officials and the reporters who speak for them. That’s beyond crazy.