A small thought in connection with televised tragedy

Horrifying and heartbreaking. The shootings at Viriginia Tech are as yet unexplained, a nightmare that impinged on reality. I can’t begin to imagine the shock and sorrow of the families and friends of the victims or the shattering of the campus community.

Unfortunately, I won’t have to make the effort to imagine it. A promo on NBC this evening informed me that Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira will be hosting the show live from the Virginia Tech campus this morning. I am sure every other network is doing the same. I’ve been blissfully without cable television for the last year and a half, but the Unfogged commenters kept me up-to-the-minute with the cable-news tragedy-porn commentary as the day unfolded. Unfortunately, I have to go to the gym this afternoon and watch CNN while doing cardio; my schedule means I’ll probably get both Wolf Blitzer and Lou Dobbs helping me feel the victims’ pain.

The pattern is familiar: interviews with eyewitnesses; interviews with friends and family; a measured, sympathetic narration in reassuring baritone about this once-peaceful college town, over b-roll of rolling hills and budding trees; more footage of candlelight vigils, memorial services, weeping parents. We will be asked to feel, and we will be shown, explicitly, exactly what form our feeling is to take. Milan Kundera’s lines couldn’t be more appropriate:

The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes the kitsch kitsch.

He then foresees our times, the day of the 24-hour news cycle with its empty airtime stretching infinitely into the future and a never-ending succession of attractive, blow-dried “journalists” to talk us through: “The brotherhood of men on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.”

May I suggest a small refusal to participate? Turning off the television out of respect? A moment of silence, as long as we can make it?

11 responses to “A small thought in connection with televised tragedy”

  1. Becks says:

    God, I’m so glad I don’t watch TV news.

  2. Marleyfan says:

    Here’s to posting TGW flag at half-mast…

  3. I agree, Becks, but at the same time I found radio and internet to be pretty awful yesterday. Two things I find really dangerous about how this kind of thing gets treated in all our news media:

    1. The body count is almost glorified by comparing it to other events in recent memory. This kind of mass killing becomes a contest, a video game, with the high score up for grabs.

    2. The calls for “mourning” and, within a few weeks, “closure.” How can people start mourning when they’re still in shock? What actually constitutes “closure”? It’s like the stages of response have been laid out in twelve-step format.

  4. Dave says:

    The media’s assumption that there’s a single mourning/closure narrative is indeed icky; it’s near-universal in broadcast media (and lots of print), and it seems to have tremendous power in shaping our collective reaction to tragic events, or at least the narratives we are allowed to tell about the events. One of the reasons I don’t like TV news, especially cable news, is that there’s no time to step back and think about this assumption. Talking about the event with friends/family, or online, allows us to have more control over how we are shocked/mourn/make peace.

  5. bacon says:


    I strongly recommend reading newspapers and limit your TV watching to Planet Earth.

  6. Scooterpie McGodfrey says:

    I often think about the human psychological capacity to understand events that aren’t within our physical purview, and the pressure the media and our culture place on us to try to understand the importance of events that we will never experience. I tend to think that this condition causes little crises for us as we try to cope with things we are incapable of understanding. In response to this, we have no defense but to become jaded, and then we wonder where our morals went.

    Neil Postman tells an anecdote in Technopoly in which the first (more or less) intercontinental telegraph cable is stretched from Baltimore to Texas. A reporter asks the man in Baltimore something like “isn’t this great? You can now talk to a man in Texas.” To which, the man replies: “What do I have to say to a man in Texas?”

    No doubt, there are some events in the world that directly affect us, but I think these are much more few and far between than the importance-makers or media want us to believe. What the fuck do I know…

    The whole thing is a bummer.

  7. lisa t. says:

    my flag is at half mast.

    what i wonder about is the reaction to “better security and alert systems” for such events– a presupposition that they will happen again– and a masking of the concept that we continue to build-up our culture of fear.

    but names like “scooterpie mcgodfrey” can provide a little smile in the midst of such a bummer…

  8. bryan says:

    this morning’s news suggests we’ve moved, as a nation, farther down the path of recovery. first, the officials at the university have realized that all of 4 days later, it’s time to “move on” and “heal.” second, the news stories are all about student backlash against the media. NPR had at least two stories about how media presence makes life more difficult for survivors, and the Times has a photo of an anti-media sign hanging out a school window. I think anti-media backlash (and a new wave of stories about it) must be step 3. we’re almost there!

    the reality is, a lot of people will have PTSD for a long, long time. and they should, considering what they’ve been through. i agree with them that reporters should back off, but to say they need to back off to allow “healing” to begin seems premature. Doesn’t it seem more respectful to allow total shock and devastation?

  9. ssw says:

    This post offers some additional perspective about the shootings and where to shift the blame

    Embedded deeper into the comments were some figures about how many people are dying in the war, and what are we doing collectively about that? I think it’s been discussed on TGW before, but bears repeating

    ‘EXCESS’ IRAQI DEATHS: 655,000

  10. bryan says:

    not to mention this stat from yesterday’s Times: 30,000 gun deaths per year in the US. In the late 60s, when the school shooting happened in Texas, national gun deaths were at 17,000 per year.

  11. jean genie says:

    i am amazed that not one of you questions the other tragedy in this story: how did this kid become so lost? all of your responses are for the most part intellectual, while this is a very unintellectual event. and it is an event that WILL happen again as long people (including the media) try to make sense of it an an intellectual way. what happened was tragic for both the shooter and the targets. what we need is compassion and understanding for ALL concerned. the shooter was also someone’s son, and his life is wasted now as well. for me, the most disturbing thing about the media’s coverage of the incident is their need to draw the race division/distinction. this kid was an AMERICAN. to point out his Korean hertiage only serves to further distance us from him, to make him other and outside ourselves. which is what this kid was all of his life apparently. and to write him off as simply ‘psycho’ is to also disregard the bigger tragedies of a broken mental health system and the larger implications of a life lived without connection.