Images of real, violent death are now routine on screens big and small, and nobody knows what they’re doing to us

I was pretty young, but I remember with fascination and horror the stills from the Zapruder film of the John Kennedy assassination. Frame by frame, Life Magazine, which in those days defined news photography, in early 1964 ran the grainy color 8mm images of the murder—Kennedy grabbing his throat as the first bullet hit him, then Jackie cradling him, finally a red blur as the killing round went through his head.

There must have been comparable, mass-circulated, images of death from before JFK’s, but I don’t remember any. The ones that came after I do remember well: Martin Luther King Jr. crumpled on the Memphis balcony; Bobby Kennedy dying, his face almost luminous as he’s comforted by the Filipino waiter in Los Angeles; the Viet Cong commando executed during Tet; the anguished girl crouching, screaming, alongside the dead student at Kent State.

They were signature moments from a world gone mad, and they left a mark because they were rare. They were rare because the news media shied away from pictures of death and dying. That was never because the pictures weren’t readily available. No metro newspaper ever complained about a shortage of grisly pictures. Images of shotgunned murder victims, limbs severed in car wrecks, impaled motorists were never hard to come by.

But the pictures were considered distasteful, more likely to cost subscriptions than to sell papers. I once asked an editor from the National Enquirer why his tabloid hadn’t published photos of Princess Diana dying in her wrecked limousine in Paris, by all accounts a harrowing scene captured by a platoon of paparazzi. Two reasons, he said: Our readers would hate us, and we’d get thrown out of the supermarkets.

Beyond that, the logic went, such images were rarely ever needed to tell the story. That was the thinking.

But that was then. We have entered a new age when it comes to images of death. Video of violent killings has become routine. Round-the-clock news channels, lacking fresh video, run continuous loops of snuff film.

How many times have I seen the 12-year-old in Cleveland with a toy gun shot dead by a cop with a real one; the teenager in Chicago as he’s shot and shot again, incredibly, 16 times, by a policeman; the Paris club-goers running into the alleyway, filmed from above, some dying, others stumbling past the bodies; the ISIS videos of hostage slaughter, images generally carried by our media right up to the moment when blade meets throat.

And the inexhaustible supply of surveillance video, a mainstay of local news now, more images of beatings and shootings. Our public records  Continue reading “Images of real, violent death are now routine on screens big and small, and nobody knows what they’re doing to us”

Murder of journalists puts news media in a quandary

The murders of the U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by their Islamist captors were trivial horrors in the spiraling calamity that has engulfed Syria and Iraq. Still, to me they were uniquely painful for reasons unrelated to the region’s incomparably greater misfortunes: They were the needless deaths of brave and committed professionals, they pointed up the frayed logic of this country’s no-ransom policy, and they reminded us of the vulnerability of the corps of freelancers on which our media increasingly rely for news from the world’s most desperate places.

As news stories the killings were was not just grim and depressing, they were perplexing too, because they couldn’t help but call into question the wisdom and morality of the considerations that define news and dictate how news is presented.

Reports of the deaths were inextricably interwoven with the spectacle that the killers created out of them, and for the news media, it was impossible to report the murders without dealing with the video of their final moments—whether displaying it, suppressing it, alluding to it, or excerpting from it.

This isn’t the first time that has happened, but I think the need for media to strike the balance between, on the one hand, judiciously conveying publicly significant information and imagery and, on the other, refusing to serve as a terrorist conduit requires a moral clarity that has been elusive.

I didn’t view the video of either killing and don’t intend to, for reasons that will be clearer in a moment, but my understanding from those who have is that they don’t actually show the beheadings. The screen fades to black as the ostensible executioner, standing alongside their kneeling prisoners, brings out the knife; the images return to show the immediate aftermath.

I mention that apparent fastidiousness to make a point that’s important—that these weren’t newsreels; the “news”—the slaughter itself–wasn’t shown. What was shown was a carefully composed set piece of physical domination and verbal polemic constructed around an offscreen act of cruelty, and it was produced to make a point.

The reluctance of various news media to show the videos—and the decision by Twitter and YouTube to remove the Foley video from their servers, and Continue reading “Murder of journalists puts news media in a quandary”

Killing as a cinematic art form

The media seem to move on from mass killings more quickly nowadays than they used to, and within three days of the Aurora, Colo., cinema massacre the killer’s first appearance in court didn’t make the front of The New York Times. Denying him notoriety was fine with me, but once the stories of heroism and sacrifice were told and the dead were memorialized, there seemed little interest in learning anything from the shooting of 70 people who had little in common beyond the movie they had come to watch.

Once, slaying 12 innocents would have touched off a national wave of introspection and debate, and it’s hard to resist the scary conclusion that such horrors have quietly come to be accepted as part of our society’s overhead, a cost of doing business. Still, what’s remarkable is that so little attention has gone to the obvious irony that the killer was acting out much the same slaughter that was being portrayed on the multiplex screen.

Raising the issue of media violence feels like indulging in some ancient controversy from the 1970s, and that’s too bad. I think we need to foreground the pop-cultural side of the killings, specifically the ways that Hollywood has drifted in recent years toward sanctifying firearms as the most powerful means of self-validation in action films, the go-to remedy for most wrongs, real and imagined, the universal vehicle of catharsis, cleansing, rectification.

Face it, the most dangerous promoter of gun violence in contemporary society isn’t the gunmakers or the National Rifle Association, it’s Hollywood. Movies are how guns are exhibited, marketed and sold. When did you last see an advertisement from Glock or Ruger or Smith & Wesson? Unless you read a specialty magazine, never.

That’s because the market for firearms isn’t widened and regenerated through consumer advertising. They’re marketed through lurid, breathtaking portrayals of gun violence, lovingly depicted in harrowing Continue reading “Killing as a cinematic art form”