or Killers, Media and (Unintended?) Celebrity
by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger
Did that headline get your attention? It was meant to do so. Sex and violence sells.
In my usual perusal of the news, I came across a death notice for someone who was famous for no other reason than she killed her wealthy lover. My immediate response was, “Why does anyone care?” She’s simply a murderer and as such her memory (as opposed to remembering the victim) and her passing should be lost in the sands of time. The manifest answer for her receiving attention was celebrity. This person was made famous by the media exposure her crime, trial and conviction created. The operative term there being “made”. Her celebrity was manufactured. The notice of her death was just another example of the business of media trading off of the celebrity they helped manufacture. Her celebrity was manufactured by an industry that was once and ideally still is primarily in the information business – journalism. Not all journalism is created equal though. Indeed, there is more than one recognized form of journalism. Good investigative and basic factual journalism is based on the simple structure of the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “how” and occasionally the ancillary commentary of “why”. A focus on”why” is often coupled with “what to do about it” in the form of advocacy journalism. Advocacy journalism often strays from imparting information and persuasive speech into outright propaganda. That is its nature. Increasingly news media is less about information and more about sensationalism. Tabloid journalism (writing which uses opinionated or wild claims) and yellow journalism (writing which emphasizes exaggerated claims or rumors) are becoming more the norm rather than the exception. Many items that pass for “news” are in reality little more than long form advertisements for some product or service. As the essence of communicating important information has been watered down by the solvents of sensationalism and advertisement, our society has become overwhelmed with what is now colloquially called the neologistic portmanteau of “infotainment”.
Is this shift from news to infotainment in part responsible for a culture that makes celebrities out of killers? Or is it human nature that prompts such sensationalism and misplaced celebrity? Can anything be done to mitigate these circumstances and minimize the potential celebrity of killers?
“If it bleeds, it ledes” is a well-known axiom of the infotainment world. Violence sells as well as sex. This is a simple fact. It is also a fact of business that commercial mass media survives on sales and advertising dollars. It makes good business sense to sensationalize news in the infotainment model. It’s consumer capitalism. However, the press is more than just a business. It is a public trust. It is such an important public trust that the Founders gave special protection to the press in the form of the 1st Amendment. “Congress shall make no law [. . .] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press“. They realized a free press was a bulwark against tyranny – a way to speak truth to power. But did they count on the economic tyranny of the marketplace corrupting a vital public service – investigative and advocacy journalism – into a circus sideshow that puts common killers on a mass media pedestal? I think not. But that is what has happened. They also probably didn’t foresee the degeneration of news into propaganda and advertising either, but that is a topic in itself and for another time. The salient point is the desire for profits has made the Fourth Estate a slave to profit. In that never ending quest for the bottom line, the news has not only lost utility in disseminating unbiased information and speaking truth to power, it has created a subculture where killers are often given the status of celebrity. All while making a tidy profit. None of which is illegal, some of which is even necessary, but I ask is it ethical to do so in a way that makes a celebrity of killers? Should the protections our society affords the press come with a duty of the press not to encourage they criminals they report upon by sensationalizing their crimes? Perhaps.
There is also the ancillary market of selling tragedy. I have a 1st edition of “Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi which details the events surrounding the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends by the “Manson family”. My particular interest in the book is as a collector of 1st editions, not specifically true crime although I do read some true crime. However, the book was a bestseller at the time it was published and it made Bugliosi famous in addition to a healthy profit. Is this kind of profiteering off of the blood of others ethical? I don’t think the answer is a clear cut yes or no. Some books, like “Helter Skelter”, are in some ways filling the gaps in infotainment created by investigative journalism falling to the wayside in mainstream news. A great deal of true crime writing is less about sensationalism than facts and trying to come to some kind of understanding of heinous acts many find incomprehensible. But what of other kinds of promotion of killers? Artistic or otherwise? I can buy a Sharon Tate t-shirt at Amazon and I can buy a Charles Manson t-shirt at there too. I’m just guessing here, but I imagine that Manson’s shirts far outsell Tate’s. The question of ethical or not becomes even murkier. Is it offering and profiting on the shirts that is problematic or is it a reflection of the immorality of the market from a consumer standpoint? For contrast, consider pornography. Does the “fault” lie with the producer or the consumer generating the demand? Why do we as a society place so much emphasis on restricting displays of a sexual nature and think that a film where a couple of dozen people are killed by torture (looking your direction Saw movies) is entertainment?
What about actual entertainment? Drama requires adversity to work as a form and there is nothing more adverse to a protagonist than the threat of or actual violence and death. If you omit violence and death from art, you’d wipe out half of Shakespeare’s works – a cultural tragedy by any measure. But entertainment in the modern world isn’t just books and plays. It’s movies and television with ever more realistic (and unrealistic) effects. It’s video games that are first person shooters which by their very name indicate the player/audience is a participant in the violence that moves the story along. While psychology has yet to prove a causative link between violent behavior and violent entertainment, they have shown that content is more important when dealing with children. Children watching a lot of television and playing violent video games are more likely to be desensitized to the true effects of violence, be more fearful of the world, and engage in violence or harmful behavior as a problem solving technique although being an innately violent child didn’t correspond to watching more television. This suggests but does not definitively demonstrate a causative link between violent entertainment and violence in children, but what of adults? Why does entertainment with violent content seem to have little or no effect on them? It prompts the question what is the primary difference between adults and children? I say that primary difference is the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy.
Another factor is base human nature. We are both born and conditioned to look out for danger to either avoid (flight) or defend (fight) against it. It is primal. Because of this, even if we lived in a world free of violence as entertainment, we might not be able to avoid creating celebrity killers simply because as social creatures we will tend to share this information relating to a danger even if (or perhaps especially when) that danger is one of us. Could the celebrity killer phenomenon be unavoidable? Perhaps. But can we mitigate some of the effects if that is so?
The problem of celebrity killers seems three-fold. Firstly, it rests in part in our natural proclivity to pay attention to them. While rooted in a very real survival instinct, that attraction to violence for practical reasons is blurred by the attraction to violence for entertainment reasons. Secondly, we are drawn to fictional violence because we love to see the protagonist overcome adversity. This attraction carries over in to news. Unfortunately, this fictional heroic outcome is rarely the case in real life. Victims of violence usually die or have horrible repercussions to live with. This is rarely portrayed in entertainment or in infotainment as it is a “downer”. Entertainment demands a happy ending. Reality? Not so much. Sometimes there is no happy ending. Thirdly, it is rooted in our own individual relationships to what is real and what isn’t.
Consider that the line between reality and fiction can become even more blurred in the realm of infotainment as news. When raw information is made to be sensational, reality is brought to the appearance of entertainment. Although violent entertainment seems to have less effect on the adult mind, one has to wonder what effect the of sensationalizing news has on one’s perception of reality? Is the fact that one sideshow barker selling fantasy and the other is selling hyped reality apparent or does that lead to confusion in the mind? Just because children are more prone to act on that confusion than adults does not mean that the confusion isn’t there but rather suggests that the effects may be more subtle than simply acting out. Sometimes there is neither simple answer nor solution.
What can we as a society and as individuals do? Become better educated and better consumers of news for one thing. Demand more straight fact and less sensationalism in your reporting. Force the marketplace to respond to a demand for information as the primary content of news over entertainment. Learn to keep reality and fantasy better segregated as a matter of social structure. Information is the key ingredient to education and that is the role our Founders envisioned for the press when they gave them special protection: to inform the public and public debate. It is not enough to be simply critical in the examination of news. We as a society needs to be more critical of how that news is delivered and of the people and institutions that deliver it and more questioning of their motives. In doing so, we may or may not be able to eliminate the celebrity killer from our culture, but we may be able to minimize the celebrity aspect. We can also better educate our children (and adults for that matter) on how to distinguish reality from fiction by teaching critical thinking from an early age. This, of course, runs afoul of those in society who seek to control others for a specific political agenda but the battle against authoritarianism is a separate issue. Are there other steps we could take to minimize celebrity killers?
We already as a society have taken steps to prevent killers themselves from profiting from their celebrity. Son of Sam Laws are an example of this, but such laws are difficult to craft as they run the risk of running afoul of the 1st Amendment Right of Free Speech if they are overbroad and/or overreaching. However, despite their challenges, such laws do reduce the phenomenon of celebrity killers by not allowing criminals to profit from their crimes. Given the difficulty of crafting such laws, are other legal solutions a viable step? Or do we as a species or society need to change how we identify and inform about killers?
There are quite a few questions here about the role of media and ourselves as media consumers in creating the culture of celebrity killers. I don’t think there is an easy answer. There may not even be an answer.
One point or all, what do you think?
~ submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger