"Rampage killers cast themselves as stars of a public spectacle"
-- Ari N. Schulman, What Mass Killers Want -- And How To Stop Them
The U.S. news media's saturation coverage of random mass killings of Americans, and the way it's glorified and encouraged the killers, has been happening in incremental fashion over a period of years. So it kind of crept up, but now it's at crisis proportions.
And the major television advertisers are not only financing what could be called Mass Murder Reality TV, their iconic brand images are suffering from constant association with saturation TV coverage of the mass killings. There's ten minutes of TV coverage of a killer's family life or graphic images of the murder scene, then switch to a smiling person enjoying a Coca-Cola.
This is very effective rebranding of a product -- effective because it's subliminal. Decades ago this kind of rebranding was a transient phenomenon because the random mass killings were few and far between, and got nowhere near the TV coverage that they do today. There are now many such killings, on an almost routine basis, and which receive 24/7 TV coverage, often for several days or even weeks on end. Then turn around and there's another mass killing, and the whole cycle starts up again, frequently punctuated by commercial breaks.
The irony is that the major corporations that sell directly to the public have sunk a lot of money into research to insure that their brands don't have the wrong association in the consumer's mind. They're very picky about what kind of TV shows they want associated with their brand. Yet they don't seem to have noticed that their brands are now associated with the worst horrors of modern American life.
I'm going to unpack the situation a little more before I make a suggestion to the corporations who advertise on the news stations.
A New Kind of Mass Killer
While often the massacres are still termed "rampage" killings, studies done by police task forces and forensic psychologists have found that in this era the perpetrators don't display the pathology of the classic rampage killer.
The random mass killer who's emerged during the last couple decades is sane, and not suffering from limbic rage while carrying out the killings. He is methodical and highly organized in his planning and execution of the crime, which he generally plans to end with his own death, either from 'copicide' or suicide by his own hand.
He also plans the mass murders so they achieve maximum publicity. Often he's in competition with the publicity records of earlier mass killers, which he studies before planning his own crime.
He also attempts to create maximum suffering for the survivors of his massacre because he knows TV reportage will extensively cover this angle.
The killer's focus is on making the spotlight for his killings as large as possible. It is the publicity itself, how great he can make the publicity, that is the main driver of his actions, no matter what rationalizations he uses for the killings.
For more details on the forensic profile of this type of killer and his modus operandi, see Ari Schulman's November 8, 2013, report for the Wall Street Journal, which I've linked to above. While Schulman doesn't specifically note this, I think it's obvious that the new kind of killer is very much a creature of television news. Television is the primary news source for most Americans and the most powerful transmitter of images of violent crimes and the survivors' suffering.
So this is literally made-for-television crime.
A New Kind of Television News Reporting
In time with the rising epidemic of the new killer has been the transformation of 24/7 news cable stations into reality television; specifically CNN and FNC (Fox Cable). During little more than a decade these stations have gone from presenting coverage of U.S. national politics as if it's a gladiatorial contest to converting any kind of story that has a sensational angle into a reality TV show.
The reality show is repeatedly aired until the producers can latch onto another news incident -- a fire, an accident, a trial, anything -- and make another reality show out of it, which then gets saturation coverage for days or weeks on end.
In short, they've converted news into reality entertainment, and applied this type of programming to the coverage of random mass killings of Americans.
The entertainment isn't limited to the evening news hours on these stations; every single hour of programming continues the saturation coverage of a killing, which is then re-aired after prime time ends.
Yet such coverage in the wake of a mass killing is not only entertainment. It's also an advertisement for this type of massacre. As such, it goes hand in glove with the mass murderer's desire to have his death command a large audience. I suspect the killings in these cases are collateral damage as stage business, meant to draw the spotlight to the killer's death.
Such programming is also an infomercial on how mass killings are accomplished. Prospective mass killers can and do study the infomercial for insights in their planning of a massacre.
And just as the new type of killer is in competition with other killers for TV ratings, MSNBC cable news and the commercial TV networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC -- have increasingly aped CNN and FNC's reality TV programming approach to compete with their coverage.
The New Killer, Reality News TV, and Terrorism
Al Qaeda and its terrorism franchises also study the infomercials for tips and note the huge amount of publicity the crimes are given on TV news shows. In fact, random mass killings executed by a 'lone wolf' type are exactly what AQ chief Ayman al Zawahiri has called for at this time as the most effective strategy for terrorists who want to kill Americans.
Of course, the random mass killings aren't characterized as terrorism. That's because terrorist acts and the killings have different root causes. Yet both have the same devastating effects. A review of TV footage of reporting on a terrorist attack and a mass killing shows that despite their different causes, both types of incidents have the same effect on the victims, survivors, relatives of both, and the general populace. There is no difference in the reactions.
Nor is there a difference in the way television news handles the two types of incidents -- reporters ask same kind of questions and treat coverage of the two types of perpetrators in the same way.
Thus, a blurring of mass crime and terrorism mixed with a blurring of shock reality TV and news. This is what America's major television advertisers are financing when they buy time on U.S. cable and commercial TV news shows. And this is what they've associated their products with: people who've learned to stretch their 50 seconds of fame on a TV news report to 15 days by carrying out the most gruesome mass crimes they can think up, and in effect turning U.S. TV news stations into their publicity agents!
Ari Schulman tells about a rash of copycat suicides that broke out in Vienna, Austria. People were jumping onto subway tracks in the path of an oncoming train. There were more and more jumpers, despite all police attempts to halt the suicides. Finally the authorities decided on an experiment. With cooperation from the local media, the suicides were given the barest minimum publicity, and the coverage was shorn of all lurid details and 'human interest' accounts of the jumper's grief-stricken family, etc.
The subway jumping suicides plummeted by 75 percent.
It was like smothering a fire. The circumscribed publicity took the oxygen out of grandstanding suicide. Given that most of the random killings happening in the USA are simply to draw large attention to what is in effect the killer's suicide, the same approach used by the Vienna authorities can be applied to cutting down the killings.
Schulman's report lists methods to strip reportage on a mass killing of its sensational details, and greatly shrink its media spotlight, thus greatly limiting the time the incident is spotlighted. The problem with applying the tactics to American cable news TV is that the producers working at these stations now only seem to understand how reality TV works. They don't seem to know what it means to be a news station.
But on paper, at least, I suppose they could be persuaded to at least greatly limit their coverage of the mass killings. Yet the data that Ari Schulman brings forward is clearly well known to law enforcement officials. So a question would be whether the officials have already tried and failed to get the TV stations to stop glorifying the random killings.
Would pressure from the big advertisers help? I think it would be worth a try.
The only other solution I can see is the passage of time. As the mass killings continue to escalate, I'd guess it's only a matter of time before many in the public turn blame on the TV coverage, and from there, the advertisers. Then I guess it'd be millions of people tuning out the news stations and not buying products advertised on them. Not a good prospect, but perhaps only by such means would major American companies cease to support a very deadly practice.