Showing posts with label Media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Media. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Robert Pickton and the Limits of Morbid Curiosity

the screamIf you think that newspapers that previously prided themselves on reporting only serious news now include more gossip and seediness in their pages, you're right.

Most major newspapers, and especially their online editions, now carry columnists who would have only been able to make a living in the most shameless tabloids a few years ago. No argument is too specious, no inflammatory statement too outrageous, and no lack of supporting evidence problematic for a good portion of columnists in the dwindling world of today's newspapers.

Of course, the broadsheets still make sure to employ more serious journalists as well. But more and more, the sneering, smug, demagogic spewers of poorly written, disingenuous tripe are taking up greater space on newspaper pages.

The more base and simplistic the better. All the easier for the average person to get their head around.

But wait, haven't newspapers always been devoted to the most salacious, bloody, sensationalistic stories possible? Yes, but as with all things in life, it's all about degrees. In the past, you could count on certain publications having standards to which they would adhere. The tabloid sleaze was left to the tabloids. All that seems to be changing.

This steady decline of the quality of both content and writing in today's newspapers is due to numerous reasons. But the one that stands out more than any other is the ease with which editors at newspapers can now determine which stories are most popular. Readers click on the stories that appeal to them most, and the number of clicks quickly confirms that sleaze, degradation, and anything that allows us to rank ourselves against others, are the determiners of whether people are interested in a story.

So you really can't blame the move towards more tripe in newspapers.

Newspaper Bloggers

Most online and print newspapers now employ numerous bloggers. Yet anytime a blogger not employed by the newspaper is mentioned, either as someone who originally broke a story or as part of the story itself, sneering condescension inevitably comes through. Instead of rising above this generalization, many newspapers seem determined to emulate and perpetuate it.

Regardless of whether you label someone a blogger or not, they are still writing, and their work still appears under the banner of the newspaper. And so in a kind of gutless easy out for printing absolutely anything, there often seems to be no standards for this breed of newspaper writer.

But if you think that the move towards a more lurid type of storytelling in newspapers means that the most vile and repugnant stories are always the most popular, then you would be wrong.

When Horror Trumps Intrigue

The sick tale of serial killer Robert Pickton confirms that readers actually do have limits to how much they can stomach. When news broke about the pig farmer who may have slaughtered more than 60 women and then disposed of their bodies in the most repellent ways possible, editors at various newspapers must have thought that they had the story of the decade.

But after the initial explosion of publicity and interest wore off, an interesting thing happened. People stopped clicking on stories about the Pickton trial. Sure, there were still a significant number of people who were interested and had a strong enough stomach to check out the details. But the numbers just didn't reach a level that might have been expected when the story first broke.

Something so base, vile, and sickening that it makes most people want to curl up and convulse at the absolute horror of it all. Nothing redeeming, no seed of hope that there is anything good in the world. No compelling story-lines, and no inkling of humanity.

However, the women who were killed by Pickton make up some of the most heartbreaking, haunting and desperate tales imaginable. But most people in society are not concerned with the marginalized. Not while the hardest done by are living, and certainly not when they have passed from the world after short, brutal lives. Even less likely are people to care about them when the possibility for experiencing some collective guilt about their deaths is very real.

So the trial of the most notorious and prolific serial killer in Canadian history was poorly attended by journalists, and ignored by many in the public. Had Pickton not been the complete vile piece of filth that he is, or if the women murdered had come from middle or upper class neighbourhoods, the interest would have been much higher. But on a more basic level, the sick, horrific details were just too much for most people to handle. Who can blame anyone for not wanting the imagery from that house of horrors to be burned in their brains?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mobster Murdered in Montreal

Various media outlets are salivating at the thought of a mob drama to rival any of the cinematic versions after the son of one of Montreal's Mafia bosses was gunned down in broad daylight on Monday, December 28th.

The logical conclusion is that there is going to be instant retaliation and then all hell is going to break loose, with a steady supply of corpses to fill up nightly newscasts and the kind of melodrama that appeals to all segments of the viewing audience, from the wealthy to the white trash. So-called experts on the Mafia scene in Canada have been consulted and the shocking prediction from one is that "There will be, for sure, a retaliation."

A simple narrative that people can get their heads around is what this is all about. Now, if only the requisite drama plays out just as it does in the movies. (Though Mafia killings are at least one example where real-life violence usually trumps anything that happens in books or cinema. In cinema, at least, there just wouldn't be enough time in a two-hour movie to depict the kind of carnage that results when a real Mafia war breaks out.)

And in a demonstration that art and life are often similar, the victim was standing near a car as he was gunned down. Mobsters in the movies and TV often seem to take out their rivals as they are getting into a car. Why exactly is that?

A few possibilities:


When someone is getting into a car, they are preoccupied and vulnerable. As some oaf lumbers out of a restaurant with a gutful of pasta and bends down to unlock the car door, he is less likely to be able to fight back, or flee.


A mobland murder often involves a hitman from out of town to decrease the likelihood that he will be caught. License plates on a car are another way to confirm that the correct person is being targetted.

Random Location

A random location outside decreases the possibility of physical evidence and also narrows the number of possible suspects. On the other hand, when someone is killed at or near a location that he frequented, other regulars from the vicinity, both strangers and those who knew the victim, can provide evidence and be interviewed, thus increasing the chances of finding the killer.

But if the murder of a mobster in Montreal and those killed in the movies bear any resemblance, the similarities end there. Because it's a guarantee that the murderous criminal Mafia thugs, who are often treated with a sick kind of reverance by the media, don't utter a steady stream of clever witticisms and hip aphorisms, do not lead lives in three tidy acts, and are not sympathetic characters in the least.

When Nicolo Rizzuto's brains oozed out of his skull and dirtied the snow on a street in Montreal, it marked the violent end of the kind of person society romanticizes far too often. Whether the killing will spark a mob war in Montreal remains to be seen.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The LA Times Homicide Report

The LA Times Homicide Report is fascinating for a number of reasons.

The sheer, non-stop parade of senseless murders is probably what brings most people back to the blog. It's hard to comprehend that such violence plays out so consistently in one geographic area. But there it is, every day, with new reports of lives ended.

Ostensibly, as mentioned in its About page, one of the motives behind the Report is to chronicle the deaths of every single person murdered in LA county. In the past, many murders would go unreported. The race and socioeconomic background of a victim often determines how much play a murder gets in the Los Angeles media (and many other jurisdictions as well).

Desensitized to Violence

So, the Report tries to address that failing of the mainstream media. And it makes a pointed effort to include the race of everyone murdered within LA county. If one goal is to give a name to every single murder victim, then the Report succeeds in that respect. But unfortunately, just as with the thousands slaughtered every year in various conflicts around the globe, you feel desensitized to the overwhelming nature of it all. I just can't force myself to feel for most of the victims, as much as I would like to.

This sense that a person should feel something but isn't quite able, is what drives people to set up those sad tributes to high profile murder cases, or the deaths of famous people. It's as if the act of leaving a teddy bear for someone you never knew will convince yourself and others that you are a caring person.

The narrative that surrounds the murder of a stranger is what determines whether or not you feel something. Which is an indication that, despite the humanity that should exist between fellow humans, it doesn't. Unless of course you know the individual who was killed. Or the script contains all the necessary elements so that it elicits empathy.

Which is why we should all recognize the importance of the arts in helping us to feel something about people whose deaths would otherwise be meaningless to us. Books, movies, music, paintings—they are not just distractions, they help us to feel. Which is also why the homicide report posts that include the most detail and use narrative elements more common in fiction are also more likely to make readers feel something.

Bathos and Nastiness

The occasional homicide report victim does get to me. There is usually some kind of bathetic element in the write-up that makes it real. Something that makes an image rise up in my mind of this person as a living, breathing individual who was cut down for some meaningless slight.

Or an extremely despicable incident that robs someone of their life for no other reason than they were at the wrong place at the wrong time in the vicinity of a murdering piece of filth:
Gomez, 92, was a neighborhood fixture, still spry enough to walk the streets for exercise in the mornings, picking up recyclables for extra cash as she went along. On Feb. 2., 2006, she left home dressed in a layer of clothes topped with a red jacket, and pushing a cart to carry cans and bottles, as was her routine.

Somebody stabbed her repeatedly and left her body in front of an apartment complex at 9034 Willis Ave. just south of Nordhoff Street and west of Van Nuys Boulevard.
Of course, there is another reason the report is so popular.When you read about tragedy befalling others, it has the odd effect of increasing your sense of well-being by making you realize that something horrible hasn't happened to you. Yet.