Charles Starkweather and the freshly kindled space race shared the news in the fall of 1957. Sputnik went up in October, Vanguard crashed and burned in December and the Charles Starkweather’s killing spree pushed the space competition out of the headlines for a while, distracting us from the cold war angst we felt with a Russian satellite in space and a failed Vanguard launch still smoldering on the pad at Canaveral. Starkweather distracted us when we needed distracting, and then on January 29th he was apprehended and two days later we caught up with Russians with a successful Explorer launch.
A few weeks ago Beth Adams (The Cassandra Pages) wrote comparing responsible media coverage of an event of public concern (an overpass collapse) with the sensationalist coverage of school shootings and the like. Ms. Adams gently urges self censorship in the latter case and encourages investigative reporting in the former. Reading that post I was reminded of the media self censorship in the US that began in the 1970’s during the wind down of the Vietnam war.
While the war progressed, media coverage of opposition across the nation was commonplace. People were aware of the broad opposition because the media reported broadly on dramatic events: civil disturbance, arrests, marches, protests, rallies. At some point in the mid-seventies that reportage ended and it has never been re-established that it is in the national interest for local opposition to be broadly reported. Thus the Bush wars, while facing significant opposition from the beginning, have not been subject to national scrutiny. When Bush arrives in La Crosse, Wisconsin and faces hundreds of demonstrators opposing his policies, it is reported as a local matter and ignored by the national press. Whenever he goes out campaigning he faces significant populist opposition in the streets, but it is not reported. The press has disciplined itself because the experience during Vietnam was painful and dangerous. People were blowing shit up.
Thus the ironic circumstance… the press can discipline itself in matters relating to public policy and freedom of expression, limiting the exposure that dissident voices receive, but it will almost certainly refuse to discipline itself from he soft-core prurience of second hand reportage of tragic events involving hate crimes. Adams asks,
Who are the people sitting in editorial offices today? How do they feel, I wonder, about their decisions of what to publish, and what not to publish, or how much play to give a particular story? On the other hand, with free access to the internet across the globe, is the cat so far out of the bag now that we simply have to live with the consequences of instantaneous reporting, lurid detail, and the desire – in an increasingly impersonal and alienated society – for brief moments of “fame” which occasionally turn very dark indeed?