“Man Trains Lesbian Monkeys To Kill Pope!”

good-evilor 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

60 thoughts on ““Man Trains Lesbian Monkeys To Kill Pope!””

  1. The public didn’t create or demand “celebrity journalism”, media did. I place much of the blame on British media. U.S. media has simply followed suit. One of the earliest examples was the topless photo that was published daily in the British newspaper “The Sun”, many years ago.

    Celebrity journalism is cheap to produce and serves the interest of the rich and powerful by keeping the masses ignorant.

    NPR serves that purpose today.

  2. OS, lol, I did the same! Only I was thinking, “wait a minute, that headline needs the word ‘tots’ in it — what happened to the tots?”

  3. Great job Gene. The news used to be our check against the power of the government, but they are not just a tool used by the government to continue to keep us in the dark.

  4. Clark wrote a mystery novel. I haven’t read it so I can’t make any judgements about it.

  5. Gene,

    A wonderful and needed meditation on “Celebrity”. Having lived as long as I have and being into all kinds of media I’ve increasingly become depressed and distressed for what passes for being famous and how it has evolved over the history of TV. While celebrity has always been with us throughout human civilization it has taken on new meanings today in American Culture (or lack of it). My own sense is that there is a desire to return to those comforting days of feudalism, where everyone knew their place and all were interested in the doings of the “Royals”. The overblown coverage of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy is indicative of this trend.

    It was apt and no doubt your sly prescience that led you to select “Helter Skelter” to discuss in depth. Vincent Bugliosi prosecuted Charles Manson, et. al. and traded upon it to cement his own celebrity. When we discuss the applicability of “Son of Sam” laws, is there no place to also discuss how prosecutors can establish a career and lifelong celebrity for prosecuting a sensational case and whether there is a ethical question to be associated with it. Marcia Clark and Charles Darden, who ineptly prosecuted OJ went on to cash in on it with her on TV and I believe he became a mystery writer.

  6. Yes good journalism. Do you mean like spending 4 days with 24 hour coverage when a lone gunman killed 26 people, but hardly a word about the 100+ people our Government killed with missiles fired from drones?

  7. Didn’t Joan Embery get fired from the San Diego Zoo for training killer lesbian monkeys?

  8. I like this analysis, Gene. Our culture has always been fascinated w/ celebrities, however w/ the advent of the internet and cable news it’s 24/7. When I taught a current events class for high school seniors I was actually heartened how saavy they were. This was 2001-02 and while the past decade it’s grown worse, the venues were all in place as they are today. One of my favorite assignments was to have the class break into 3 groups to watch the 3 major networks evening news. They were all appalled that the networks all ran virtually the same stories in the same order. We would then use the BBC and other sites online to see the big stories the major 3 didn’t cover. On a daily basis every student adopted a major city newspaper and would report daily to the class about a major story in that city. These kids loved this stuff. I am not as pessissmistic as many about youth and their ability to discern truth from bullshit.

  9. OS -Sucked me in, too! Now what do I do with my “When lesbian killer-monkeys are outlawed, only outlaws will have lesbian killer-monkeys” comment…?

    Gene, great article. Made me think of “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote (also “The Executioner’s Song (??)). Wonder if those would be just a blip on an “In other news” column.

    What is more sensational, news-wise, “mass,” or “serial” killings?

  10. Read the headline and had lots of questions. How did the man determine his monkeys were lesbians? How many monkeys did he need to find enough to meet his needs? How did he train them to recognize the pope? What means were they to use in killing the pope?

    And then I read the article. Good example of why I don’t buy tabloids. An occasional headline gets my attention, I read the article in the store, put the magazine/paper back on the rack, and leave disappointed. I still don’t know how that man finds and trains his monkeys.

  11. Or maybe you should learn to properly understand the use of satire (the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues).

  12. Ummm, have you looked at the titles of your own articles? Perhaps the media needs to come up with a dewy decimal system of their own for headlines.

  13. :mrgreen:

    A good fisherman knows how to select bait and a good fireman knows sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.

  14. Gene,
    I read your headline and got my hopes up before I read the rest of the article and realized it was snark.

    Drat! Foiled again!

  15. As with guns, sick people use the media to feed their delusions of power and control. That doesn’t’ make either intrinsically bad but more could be done by both industries to mitigate the effects of other people’s misuse. That’s why guns have safeties and newspapers have editorial boards. We can foresee problems. Why don’t we act to prevent them without curtailing our own rights. It is not an “either-or” situation.

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