Showing posts with label True Crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label True Crime. 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?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Police Officer Murdered in Ottawa

When ready-made and easy-to-follow narrtatives come screeching to a halt, many people don't quite know how to react.

In 1995 I was living in Tel Aviv when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. The night is burned in my memory. There was a nice chill in the air, and a political rally in support of the Oslo peace process was being held a few kilometres away at the Kikar Malchey Israel (Kings of Israel Square). I half-heartedly urged some friends that we should head down to take in the event. Instead, we settled for a night at the local pub.

A few hours later the word came out that Rabin had been shot. There were two palpable, collective pauses that night. The first was after everyone knew the shooting had taken place, but there was still little information available regarding Rabin's condition. A short time later the worst possible outcome was realized: Rabin was dead.

After news that Rabin was dead, rage quickly grew. Everyone was certain was that there was going to be a war, the assumption being that an Arab had pulled the trigger. But still, the officical word had to come down so that the rage could be consummated. When the news broke that, in fact, a Jew had put five bullets in Rabin's back, no one knew quite how to react. A wrench had been thrown into the narrative.

Police Officer Murdered in Ottawa

This is what I am reminded of as the story of a police officer stabbed to death in Ottawa has evolved today. The rightful mourning for the fallen officer, Eric Czapnik, started in earnest as soon as the horrible details started to come out. An officer writing some notes in his car outside an Ottawa hospital was attacked by a knife wielding maniac and stabbed to death.

But things took an even worse turn when we learned that an RCMP officer, Kevin Gregson, had done the killing. The sadness and mourning will not be diminished for the many people who are affected by this killing. But somehow, while it's all a bit more repellent and vile, the rage won't be channeled quite as easily and purely as it would have been if the killer had been a career criminal.

The hatred would have been white hot, the calls for revenge greater, and the ease of attacking the courts for lenience (the RCMP officer who did the killing pulled a knife and threatened someone a few years ago) would have been unhindered.

This will be much harder for police officers to deal with.

Numerous Questions

The details of this story will take some time to come to light. When you consider the secrecy and closed nature of all police forces, it's easy to imagine that the RCMP, at least, will do its best to keep the public in the dark about what exactly happened here.

What is already known is:

The RCMP officer who did the killing was on leave due to the previous charge he faced in 2007, and surgery that he underwent to remove cysts from his brain.

Czapnik was at the hospital on an unrelated call when he was attacked and killed.

But the questions are numerous:

What was Gregson doing at the hospital?

Did Gregson know Czapnik? In other words, was this personal?

Was Gregson treated more leniently in 2007 because he was a member of the RCMP?

Besides determining exactly what happened, the interaction between the Ottawa police and the RCMP will be interesting to watch as this story unfolds.

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.