Does Making Killers Famous Make More Killers?
Almost a decade ago, Roger Ebert wondered if making mass murderers famous doesn't provide a perverse incentive.
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.
I’m neither expert in the relevant academic literature nor sufficiently motivated to look it up on a Saturday morning for a blog post but Ebert’s reaction strikes me as intuitively right. The fact that these monsters are made famous on TV for their heinous act can’t help but inspire other psychopaths to follow suit.
I don’t know what the answer is, here. It’s one thing for, say, ESPN to decide that they won’t reward yahoos who run onto the field of a sporting event naked hoping to make it into the SportsCenter highlights. It’s quite another, indeed, to ignore a story about innocent children being slaughtered by a psychopath. While I tend not to closely follow those stories–and I’m even less interested in wallowing in them now that I have kids of my own–there’s no way around the fact that they’re newsworthy.