Eleven Days before Christmas: Carnage in Connecticut

How do we make sense of what just doesn’t make sense?

— Lester Holt, NBC News, reporting live on the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT on 12/14/2012

Big Media talking heads always expresses shock, incredulity, and incomprehension when yet another American runs amok gunning down innocent bystanders in a school, a church, a workplace, a movie theater, or a shopping mall. It’s as if the causes of the continuing epidemic of mass killings in the USA were deeply mysterious, unfathomable, and somehow impenetrable. They are not. On the contrary, the primary causes of this particular aspect of the breakdown of the social order are readily apparent – glaringly obvious. And Big Media is a big part of the problem.

Is it really so difficult to understand that Americans’ attitudes about guns and violence are shaped primarily by the Big Media corporations that control the public discussion?

American society is marinated in violence. On screens large and small, from movie theaters, to televisions, to computer games, the entertainment industry relentlessly injects socially-destabilizing violent media content into what passes for popular culture in the USA. Hundreds of studies have shown that audiences, especially young, naive, and impressionable audiences – and individuals who are mentally unstable – are negatively affected by exposure to violent media programming. Regular exposure to violent media content desensitizes viewers to the horror of murder and mayhem and results in more aggressive behavior. Regular exposure to media violence tends to promote and reinforce attitudes and behaviors based on the mediated perception that violence is a preferred method of problem solving.

Hundreds of scholarly studies over the years have indicated that violent media content has negative effects on audiences.  The vast majority of violent media content is devoid of any significant socially redeeming value.  Violent media content is produced and marketed for two reasons: 1) These destructive products are hugely profitable for the powerful Big Media corporations that purchase or produce and market them, and 2) the products are heavily freighted with persuasive social and political messaging that the owners of Big Media corporations view as supportive of, and advantageous to, their particular social and political agendas.

Dozens of authors have written books about the psychologically and emotionally damaging and socially destabilizing effects of violent media content. Suggested Reading: Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, by Sissela Bok; Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano; A is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age, by Barry Sanders; and Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture, by Jack G. Shaheen.

With the deaths of 27 innocent children and their teachers in Newtown, CT on Friday at the hands of a deranged shooter, it has become ever so painfully obvious once again that the deluge of violent Big Media entertainment product on TV, in movies, and in video games desensitizes regular viewers to violence, persuades naive and impressionable audiences that violence is the preferred method of problem solving, creates a social and political climate of fear and loathing, and promotes aggressive attitudes and violent behaviors across society.  It is equally clear that some Big Media producers purposefully produce and market extremely violent programming precisely because they intend to advance a particular ethnic, social, and political agenda. Let’s look at just one illustrative example, the popular Fox television series 24 that ended in 2010 after eight seasons. The series, which won, or was nominated for, more than 36 major entertainment industry awards including 12 Emmys, focused on espionage, terrorism, and torture.  24 was sickeningly violent, enormously popular, and widely criticized for its blatant anti-Muslim bias and for promoting torture.

According to Wikipedia: “On June 23, 2006, the politically conservative US think tank The Heritage Foundation held an unusual panel event to discuss ‘24 and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism’.  The panel event, which was first conceived by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, Ginni, was moderated by talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. In addition to 24 executive producers Robert Cochran, Joel Surnow, and Howard Gordon, and 24 cast members Gregory Itzin, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Carlos Bernard, the panel included Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and leading Homeland Security experts James Jay Carafano and David Heyman.  During the event, Limbaugh, a fan of the show himself, commented that, ‘Everybody I’ve met in the government that I tell I watch this show, they are huge fans.’ He specifically identified former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Republican political strategist Mary Matalin as enthusiastic fans.  The event audience also included Justice Thomas and radio talk show host Laura Ingraham.”

“…[I]n February 2007, The New Yorker magazine reported that U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan (dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point), accompanied by three of the most experienced military and FBI interrogators in the country, met with the producers of 24 to criticize the show for misrepresenting the effectiveness of torture as an interrogation technique, saying it encouraged soldiers to see torture as a useful and justified tactic in the War on Terror, and damaged the international image of the United States.  Brigadier General Finnegan believed the show had an adverse effect on the training of American soldiers because it advocated unethical and illegal behavior. In his words:

“The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’ The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

“Joe Navarro, one of the FBI’s top experts in questioning techniques, also attended the meeting. He told The New Yorker, ‘Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems.’”

The New Yorker article itself echoed many of these criticisms, and went on to suggest that the show’s portrayal of torture was a reflection of the political views of its creator, Joel Surnow, an avowed conservative and supporter of George W. Bush.  The New Yorker’s criticism of 24 and Surnow was picked up by other commentators and bloggers.”

British author, political commentator, and former Atlantic magazine senior editor Andrew Sullivan criticized 24 producer Joel Surnow for repeatedly using the “ticking time-bomb” scenario in “an attempt to normalize torture in the public consciousness”.

Many US law enforcement officers and administrators, who have to deal directly with the resulting carnage, know quite well that violent political rhetoric in broadcast media and media violence are primary causative factors in mass killings.  On the morning of January 8, 2011, a mass shooting in a shopping mall parking lot in Arizona killed six including Chief US District Judge John Roll and wounded 19 including US Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  Just hours after the shooting, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik expressed the concerns and sentiments of many Americans regarding violence in media, cultural decline, and the dangerously divisive tone and content of political discourse in broadcast media venues.

“I think it’s time as a country that we need to do a little soul-searching, because I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what we see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching,” said Dupnik.

“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. … All I can tell you is that there is reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue, and I think that people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol,” said Dupnik.

A few days later, journalist and popular PBS talk show host Charlie Rose asked Roger Depue, a 21-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, about the movies and the media and the negative impact of media violence.  Depue described the impact of media violence as, “much more profound and significant than a little political rhetoric” ( Depue’s observation comes at the end of the interview, at 18.56).

Yes, the USA is awash in firearms, and far too often mentally and emotionally unstable people who shouldn’t have access to guns get hold of them.  The far more serious problem is Americans’ attitudes about guns and violence, attitudes shaped primarily by Big Media corporations, attitudes that are very different from those in other wealthy industrialized nations.  For instance, Switzerland has compulsory military service for men (voluntary for women), and the Swiss own more guns per capita – more semiautomatic pistols and assault rifles – than do Americans.  “Between the ages of 21 and 32 men serve as frontline troops.  They are given an M-57 assault rifle and [until 2007] 24 rounds of ammunition which they are required to keep at home. … In addition to the government-provided arms, there are few restrictions on buying weapons.  Some cantons restrict the carrying of firearms – others do not.  The government even sells off surplus weaponry to the general public when new equipment is introduced.  Guns and shooting are popular national pastimes.  More than 200,000 Swiss attend national annual marksmanship competitions.  But despite the wide ownership and availability of guns, violent crime is extremely rare. There are only minimal controls at public buildings and politicians rarely have police protection”.

One extraordinarily important difference between the Swiss and Americans:  Big Media corporations have conditioned American audiences to enjoy increasingly violent entertainment fare, while the Swiss are not thus afflicted.  American audiences are habituated to media violence, in stark contrast to the Swiss, who, like most Europeans, widely – and quite correctly – view America’s addiction to violent entertainment programming as what it is, a grave, alarming, and growing threat to public safety, public morality, social stability, and good government.

America’s problem is that Big Media corporations, which profit directly from socially-destabilizing violent media content freighted with political messaging, are so powerful and influential that our democratically-elected representatives, at even the highest levels of government, have very seldom dared to criticize Big Media owners and executives or their products openly.  How could they, when the success of political campaigns – the success of political careers – is directly dependent upon electioneering, commentary, news reports that take place all but exclusively in broadcast media venues wholly owned and controlled by Big Media corporations?  Recent reports say the cost of the 2012 election amounted to more than $4.2 billion, the most expensive in the nation’s history.

“While inside-the-Beltway Washington and similar firms who have run campaigns before made the most money from the Obama and Romney campaigns, the biggest expense for both camps was still broadcast advertising.  Despite all the declarations that everything is going on the Internet, the biggest industry beneficiary of campaign spending is any business that works with broadcast media,” said David M. Mason, a former FEC chair who now helps mostly Republican-related campaigns comply with federal and state regulatory requirements. “It’s always been advertising for as long as we’ve really had good data on election spending”.

Big Broadcast Media corporations make a mockery of the quaint notion of freedom of speech.  Big Media corporations largely control the public discussion.  They are by far the most socially, culturally, and politically influential entities in the USA.  Big Media corporations are powerful. Big Media corporations are coercive.  Big Media corporations are pathologically violent.  Big Media corporations are killing Americans and their children, because Big Media owners and executives find it profitable and politically advantageous to do so.

Michael Gillespie, in addition to his regular freelance work for Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, is also a contributing editor and the Des Moines, IA correspondent for The Independent Monitor, the national newspaper of Arab Americans, published by Sami Mashney in Anaheim, CA. Read other articles by Michael.