Monday, April 16, 2007

It couldn't have been much worse. But she tried, I'll give her that.

At this moment I am so enraged at CNN's Paula Zahn that I could spit. Tonight, she turned her 8 p.m. show into a tireless and unseemly campaign to bait shell-shocked Virginia Tech students into indicting the college for its failure to protect them. One after another, they refused to follow her lead, putting the spotlight back where it belonged, at least as they saw it this night: on the gunman or gunmen*, and the helpless victims. And still the controversy-minded Zahn would not be denied. She kept pressing, refusing to take no for an answer, at times trying to bully or browbeat the young collegians into agreeing that their college had to be at least partly responsible for the massacre. (And don't you know that if they'd given Zahn an inch, the resulting quote would've appeared in the crawl at the bottom of the screen within minutes: "College 'partly responsible,' says VTech student.") I give tremendous credit to Zahn's young guests, who, despite the circumstances and their obvious emotional disarray, stood their ground, taking the high road in the face of her assault.

Zahn's conduct of those interviews was deplorable—one of the tackiest and most egregious cases of media pot-stirring I've ever seen. Yes, even for a proven hack like Paula Zahn.

P.S. TUESDAY MORNING. One more glimpse of our glorious American media in action, while I'm still on the subject (and still angry as I awake): Having made such a weighty contribution to The Undoing of Don Imus via ceaseless "reporting" that framed Imus as The Very Face of Evil in American Life, journalists now transit to what is always the Clear Next Phase in a media crucifixation: the Contrition Stage, where the pundits purse their lips, wring their hands and begin to question "whether this whole thing might have been overblown" (!), whether Imus might have been a scapegoat/sacrificial lamb, etc. Note the more balanced, thoughtful tenor of the reporting on Imus now, compare it to the unalloyed outrage that suffused the reporting in the first few days of the scandal**, and tell me if I'm wrong. This is a purposely hyperbolic analogy, but it's kind of like a guy killing his wife and kids, crashing his car during the getaway, losing consciousness, developing amnesia, then hearing of the murders later and wondering "who could have done such a terrible thing...?"

* And incidentally, in every single report I've heard this morning (now Tuesday, April 17), the gunman is identified as "an Asian student." Why is the "Asian" necessary? If the student were white, would they say that? Or would they just leave the race unspoken (white presumably being the "default" racial identity of any given person in the media spotlight)? This is another subtle example of ways in which we seem to feel compelled to inject race and/or ethnicity into discussions where those elements—in my view—have no proper place. If the student were Islamic, and there were concerns about terrorism being a factor in the shootings, then I could see a case for race. But here? Especially since we've been told nothing else about this person and his motives. Why is it important to tell us that he's "Asian"?
** which Bill Maher and others have argued was itself a media invention, in large part.


Cal said...

I guess these students haven't been SHAMed yet. Because if you saw Larry King directly afterward, he had Dr. Phil on for a segment. One of the first things Dr. Phil said was that the parents of these students are going to be very upset about the events that transpired. Dr. Phil thought that sending an e-mail after the first incident was insufficient to alert the community and that the school should have been on lockdown. This story was carried all day locally on the stations in the Washington DC area, where some of the students come from. I heard several parents of students currently at Virginia Tech saying that they will take a real hard look as to whether to send their kids back.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, thanks for these thoughts. I think on reflection that my post wasn't clear; you seem to have come away with the impression that I was defending VTech. I'm not. I too wondered about the sufficiency of the school's reaction to the unspeakable tragedy that was unfolding on its campus (which I'm sure will be one of the key focuses of the after-analysis here). My point about Zahn stands, however. If you ask a question--especially amid yesterday's circumstances--and you don't get the answer you were hoping for (i.e. the answer that would make the interview as controversial and "sexy" as possible), you don't keep badgering your interview subjects in order to get them to give you some semblance of the answer you wanted. That's not an honest interview; it's not designed to give listeners an insight into the mindset of the person being interviewed. It's designed to yield the type of interview that the interviewer considers more sensational and "newsworthy."

Today's journalists aren't content to sit back and let news happen. They want to participate in the process, to mold it into the shape that's most marketable, at least as they see it.

Two Write Hands said...

Back in the day I worked some demeaning jobs. My stint as an elementary school secretary is the most glaring example. I let crack moms yell at me. I let kids with unidentified viruses hold my hand and hug me. Many of us do things we otherwise wouldn't just to bring home a paycheck.

So what about the people pulling Zahn's strings? Aren't many journalists (specifically the ones trying to hold on to sweet contracts and a modicum of fame) under pressure to employ these tactics to keep the ratings and raises coming? I'm no insider, but I don't think the problem starts (or end) with Zahn.

Steve Salerno said...

No, 2Write, I don't think the problem starts with Zahn, either. In fact, I know it doesn't. But Zahn's "performance" last night (and I mean the word in its theatrical sense as well) was as transparent an example of the trouble with modern mass media as I've seen. She had an agenda in mind, and dad-gammit, she was gonna sell that preconceived story line regardless of how much resistance she got from her sources (who, let's not forget, are the people whose attitudes are supposed to count here, at least in theory). You'll see what I mean if you look over the transcript I've linked this morning. Though it misses the nuance--particularly the importunate, bullying tone of Zahn's voice--you can cleary see her determination to get these poor frazzled kids to "buy in" to her lens on the tragedy.

Anonymous said...

Steve, it's Alyssa, for some reason I can't get into blogger, but I saw the show (Zahn) and I thought the same thing. No matter what those students said, she was going to keep pushing for the answer she wanted. Another thing I noticed is that even though all the people she interviewed on air refused to attack the school, she'd start her questions with "a lot of people are outraged at the school..." So who were these other people, then?! Or was she just using that as her way of putting her own thoughts in other people's heads?

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

From Paris, I heard a very interest comment on one of the major radio broadcasts, from a French "expert". His comment was that the criminal rates in US shools were diminishing and that the total number of Virginia Tech victims was the amount of last year's in total in the US.
Of course, I am being vague a bout the exact figures.
I hope it would help "relativize" what has happened.


Steve Salerno said...

Your closing question was probably rhetorical, but yes, that's exactly what Zahn was doing: She can't actually say that SHE is outraged at the school, or that SHE wants people to VOICE outrage at the school, so she puts her agenda in other people's mouths. Regrettably, that is a very common tactic in latter-day (pseudo) journalism. What people like Zahn do is take a fringe opinion, or even an opinion that hasn't even been expressed, and couch it in such a way that it sounds like the majority opinion

Cal said...


I agree with some of your post. Because of the "24 hour news cycle", there is a "rush to judgment". If Imus had made it through last week with just the suspension, he would have been back on the air because the Va. Tech shootings would have taken precedence. The media would not be talking about Imus. And if they did, it would be how we wasted so many hours on two words when we have other problems in the world. I know that this is rear-view mirror thinking. But it is weird to me (not in some metaphysical or "it's amazing how God works" nonsense) how this transpired.

The same thing happened in the Duke rape case. Now I'm quite aware, being an African- American (sorry to bring up race here) some of the issues of people being in jail for crimes that they did not commit. That is why DNA testing has been such a good thing in reducing the chances of this happening. However, the media and Revs. Jesse and Al ran to Durham and fanned the flames of what was already a tense situation. The Imus thing stopped the media from examining thoroughly how they botched the case. And the Revs. have not apologized to the kids.

But the 24 hour news cycle plays into people's emotions. We hear stories that would have been local only in previous decades become a national crisis. It is usually this time of year we get the missing white female hysteria (i.e, Chandra Levy, the runaway bride, Natalie Holloway, Laci Peterson).

Steve Salerno said...

Good points all, Cal. I was thinking the same thing about Don Imus--that he needed for something else to erupt into the national consciousness in order for him to have a fighting chance. (And I'm not championing Don Imus' cause here, though I do not believe he should've lost his job. Mostly, I'm just seconding Cal's elucidation of the role of fortuity in all this.)

Incidentally, do you recall what finally knocked Chandra Levy off the front page? It was 9-11.

Anonymous said...

Zahn was right, the school acted incompentently and should be called to account for it. A good journalist is tough minded no matter the story, and calls a spade a spade.

Anonymous said...

You say: If the student were Islamic, and there were concerns about terrorism being a factor in the shootings, then I could see a case for race.

"Islamic" & "Muslim" are not interchangeable, regardless of post-9/11 moron media useages of the words. 'Islamic' is an adjective which is used to indicate something that "is of" or "pertaining to" the religion of Islam. 'Muslim' on the other hand, pertains to people who accept that faith. Hence, you probably meant a Muslim student rather than an "Islamic" one.

Second, Muslims come from all over the globe, as I'm sure you're aware. Meaning, a Muslim could be from places as varied as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kenya, India, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, or the United States. Is your above statement then suggesting that being a Muslim corresponds to being a particular race? (I'm thinking you have the Middle East and "Arabs" in mind, but correct me if I'm wrong.) In which case, are you not perpetuating the same stereotypes the media - that you so eloquently critique - perpetuates?

Or are you arguing that the act of a Muslim shooting 30 people in a school is somehow qualitatively different from an Asian or a White person doing so, because the first constitutes "terrorism" whereas the latter two does not? Last time I checked, the dictionary definition of "terrorism" had to do with the unlawful use of force or violence, ragardless of the skin colour and religious persuasion of the perpetrator.


Steve Salerno said...

See, JZ, this is the great danger of trying to cover, in a post on a blog, a topic or issue that really demands a book. If not several. Plus follow-up discussions.

I concede that in my footnote I was careless in the use of the word "Islamic." However, in the body of this post, as elsewhere in SHAMblog, I use the phrase "race and/or ethnicity." (And I think in other posts I included age, gender, religion, etc.) What I'm trying to say is that in general, I don't like race/ethnic-identification in any form.

Having said that....

When a group of people band together as a bloc...and, after the fact, one notices certain common qualities found in the members of that group and, more important, that the people in that group, all of whom have those qualities, identify THEMSELVES by those common qualities...and then it becomes clear that other people who also appear to have those common qualities may be interested in killing the rest of us who DON'T have those qualities... Well, I kind of go (again) with Bill Maher on this one: There were no Scandinavians on those planes on 9-11 (at least, if there were, they weren't hijackers). Bill Maher also is fond of the gibe, "We are Islam, we are the religion of peace--and if you don't believe that, we'll kill you." Which of course is caricature--but perhaps a relevant one?

Let me emphasize that I don't LIKE that way of thinking. I hate it. I just don't know how else to approach, pragmatically, the matter of terrorism and--bottom line--ensuring the survival of America. Assuming that ensuring the survival of America is something we want to do.

Let me also emphasize that this is also why I'm not a fan of religion. If Islamics did not have their religion (or let me put it another way: If there were no such thing as religion), we would be less likely to have this problem. That's more along the lines of a real (albeit unachievable?) solution here, rather than the kind of profiling described above.