America’s Deadliest School Massacre And The New Media World

Is it good to live in a world where news of a massacre can travel around the world in an instant?

It didn’t happen yesterday, it happened in Michigan in 1927:

A school board official, enraged at a tax increase to fund school construction, quietly planted explosives in Bath Township Elementary. Then, the day he was finally ready, he set off an inferno. When crowds rushed in to rescue the children, he drove up his shrapnel-filled car and detonated it, too, killing more people, including himself. And then, something we’d find very strange happened.


No cameras were placed at the front of schools. No school guards started making visitors show identification. No Zero Tolerance laws were passed, nor were background checks required of PTA volunteers—all precautions that many American schools instituted in the wake of the Columbine shootings, in 1999. Americans in 1928—and for the next several generations —continued to send their kids to school without any of these measures. They didn’t even drive them there. How did they maintain the kind of confidence my own knees and heart don’t feel as I write this?

They had a distance that has disappeared. A distance that helped them keep the rarity and unpredictability of the tragedy in perspective, granting them parental peace.

“In 1928, the odds are that if people in this country read about this tragedy, they read it several days later, in place that was hard to get to,” explains Art Markman, author of “Smart Thinking” (Perigee Books, 2012). “You couldn’t hop on a plane and be there in an hour. Michigan? If you were living in South Carolina, it would be a three-day drive. It’s almost another country. You’d think, ‘Those crazy people in Michigan,’ same as if a school blows up in one of the breakaway Republics.”

Time and space create distance. But today, those have compressed to zero. The Connecticut shooting comes into our homes-even our hands-instantly, no matter where we live. We see the shattered parents in real time. The President can barely maintain composure. This sorrow isn’t far away, it’s local for every single one of us.

Ever since the news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School broke yesterday morning, it has been pretty much the only topic of discussion on the cable news networks who, since they are all located in New York City, were able to get anchors like Wolf Blizter and Anderson Cooper to the scene of the crime before the sun had even set on the West Coast. All three major broadcast networks broke into their at least part of their afternoon schedules to broadcast update. And, if you’re spent any amount of time surfing the blogs, or reading Twitter or Facebook, it has pushed pretty much every other topic of discussion to the side. This is likely to continue through the weekend and into the better part of next week. We haven’t even gotten to the point where victims names have been released, and when that happens we’re likely to see the media obsess over every little detail of their lives. In the meantime, armchair psychiatric “experts” will tell news anchors what motivated the actions of a dead man that they never met and who they know nothing about. At some point, there will be a memorial service that the President will most likely attend and more moving speeches will be delivered. It will be, frankly, quite the maudlin last week before Christmas.

This didn’t happen in 1927, nor at any other time when a horrible crime in another part of the country, or the world, occurred. There’s no tuning the clock back, of course. We live in a hyper-connected world where news like this travels around the world at the speed of light. Yesterday, we saw the dangers of that as many of the initial details about the shooting — from the possibility of their being a second shooter, to the question of whether the shooter’s father and brother had also been murdered, to the identity of the shooter himself — turned out to be incorrect. Even today, there seem to be different versions of what kind of weapons were used in the shooting, with some news outlets reporting that the Sig Sauer .223 rifle was found in the car the Defendant used while others saying it was found with the shooter’s body. There have also been examples of what I would personally call egregious behavior by some members of the media. All day yesterday, for example, we saw reporters interviewing children who had witnessed the shooting. Today, there are reports of other reporters who were using Twitter to contact people who identified themselves as friends of people with children at the school to see if they could get an interview. Yes I suppose they’re doing their job, but it’s all quite sordid.

As someone who writes and spends a lot of time gathering information online, I’m not suggesting that we go back to the way things were in 1927, but I can’t help but be just a little jealous of those people and their sheltered lives.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Media, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    not suggesting that we go back to the way things were in 1927, but I can’t help but be just a little jealous of those people and their sheltered lives.

    Yes they didn’t have to worry their pretty little heads about fascism on the march across Europe; huge financial bubbles inflating that would create the greatest financial crash in history and indirectly WW 2; the moral chaos of Prohibition; widespread malnutrition across the south and southwest; regular black lynchings in the south; happy days. And yes I’m a cynic. And yes I agree with you about the interviews with 8 year olds……you expect the media to behave totally irresponsibly but the parents?

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    The 24/7 cable tabloid networks have made it even worse. I’m not watching it but I can hear FOX f=in the other room and they have even preempted their regular Saturday shows of sociopaths from the WSJ.

  3. Barfour says:

    I read today that the shooter’s father learnt that his family was involved in the shooting from a reporter who was waiting in front of his home when he came back from work.

  4. Peter says:

    Part – maybe most – of the reason why there was so much incorrect information is that there is a voracious demand for news, which the media outlets feel compelled to satisfy. No particular outlet dares be left behind by not coming out with the “latest” information even if that information later proves to be wrong. For their part, the police are the main source of information, but are not always in a hurry to speak.

    One thing I noted, however, is that reports of the death toll were accurate; when I first heard about the shooting on the radio around noon the death toll was reported as 27, which stayed the same until the body of Nancy Lanza was discovered shortly thereafter.

  5. Andy says:

    The distance is there, if you choose to exercise it. No one makes you watch the 24/7 news. No one makes you troll the internet news sites. No one makes you check twitter and facebook every 10 minutes.

  6. Marilyn Kopecky says:

    The most killed were on September 11..By planes, shall we ban planes ?

  7. Bernieyeball says:

    @Marilyn Kopecky: Of course we all know that planes and guns are exactly the same. You can always use a gun to fly from one place to another. It is called skyjacking.

    (not like banning anything was the subject of this post Marilyn, wise up.)

  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Marilyn Kopecky:

    ..By planes, shall we ban planes ?

    Why stop there…..lets ban atom bombs……Unfortunately Marilyn is symptomatic of the lack of commonsense of the gun crowd. Basically these kids and women died so that presumably she and the rest of the gun crowd can enjoy their recreational pursuit. This is the societal cost of unimpeded access to over 300 million guns and it will continue to be paid until we start to exercise some realism. In the meantime we console ourselves with lots of crocodile tears by politicians, the media et al and calls for the assistance of god.

  9. bk says:

    @Marilyn Kopecky: People of all ages die from choking on food, so we should ban food.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    As someone who writes and spends a lot of time gathering information online, I’m not suggesting that we go back to the way things were in 1927, but I can’t help but be just a little jealous of those people and their sheltered lives.

    Yeah Doug, newspapers in 1927 were soooooooooo much better than they are now. Go back and read some of those articles on Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger. Tell me they were what we should aspire to now.

    You know why why CNN and FOX (NPR too, I was listening as I worked) play this stuff 24/7? Because people watch/ listen. The only difference between now and then is that information flows a whole lot easier. Back in 1927 there would have been hundreds dead… and then a week later it would be 27 on the back page of the news paper. Nowadays the correct number of dead is known within 6-12 hrs.

    Also, via Ezra:

    Mother Jones has tracked and mapped every shooting spree in the last three decades. “Since 1982, there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii,” they found. And in most cases, the killers had obtained their weapons legally:


    15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years took place in the United States. Time has the full list here. In second place is Finland, with two entries.


    Of the 11 deadliest shootings in the US, five have happened from 2007 onward.
    That doesn’t include Friday’s shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. The AP put the early reported death toll at 27, which would make it the second-deadliest mass shooting in US history.

    Facts…. are…. as they say…. inconvenient. But please, let us continue to compare 1927 to 2012. Please.Pretty Please?

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Marilyn Kopecky: YES!!! Ban planes!!! Just the other day I was walking by Cherokee and Minnesota and somebody offered me a 747 for $300. I could’a used one too but I only had $200.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And please, take a look at the face of one of the dead.

    via John Cole

  13. john personna says:

    Just got home, tv preempted, report of a shooting at a local mall.

    I wonder if a big year in shootings could change the politics.

  14. Bernieyeball says:

    @john personna:I wonder if a big year in shootings could change the politics.

    State and National legislators refuse to stand up to the National Rifle Association. Dream on.

  15. Bernieyeball says:

    50 Years ago Walter Cronkite hosted a TV show “You Are There”.
    Today…we are all there.

  16. Bernieyeball says:

    My mom, son, and I are shopping at Fashion Island and we heard gun shots we’re hiding in the restroom.

    Lifted from the link above.

    Correction: Cronkite’s “You Are There” aired from 1953-1957.
    (I was born in Jan. 48. I remember it well. However I can’t remember where I had coffee this morning.)

  17. Bernieyeball says:

    I vaguely recall reading about how in the Soviet Union there were never reports of plane crashes.
    The only way citizens learned of such events was to read the obituaries of the victims. When many deaths occurred on the same date it was a good indicator that an accident had happened.

  18. aFloridian says:

    I have little doubt that the pervasive media world we live in today is a factor in these events. Perhaps it encourages or inspires some of the actors involved in these crimes. Obviously there is an appetite for 24 hour news which shows no signs of going away, so it will likely continue to be a factor. Obviously there are other factors, but our modern media culture is changing the way we all live in very significant ways – some good and some very bad.

  19. matt says:

    @aFloridian: What else could you do that would get the president of the United States to mention you?

  20. Tillman says:

    Sounds like American exceptionalism’s bias at work.

    No, really, I couldn’t get away from coverage of this massacre. I can get away from coverage of other massacres around the world a lot easier. There’s still a distance at work.

    Whether that distance is shortened by technology or not is a good question for this century.

  21. john personna says:


    Apparently someone decided to go to the mall and to shoot off 50 rounds, without actually hurting anyone.

  22. dmhlt says:

    @Marilyn Kopecky:

    And after 9/11 every plane passenger was subjected to background checks and rigorous searches including shoe and belt removal, x-rays, wands, invasive pat-downs, with some strip-searches thrown in.

    How about we apply comparable stringent measures to control the current easy accessibility of obtaining assault weapons?