IF IT BLEEDS, LET IT LEAD
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 19, 2004 -- Media critics are generally contemptuous of the tv news maxim, "if it bleeds, it leads," which refers to the tendency in local news broadcasts to begin with the goriest stories of the day.
With all due respect, may I suggest that this approach is not always inappropriate. This column is written on the seventh anniversary of the murder of Lawrence Austin, killed by gunshot January 17, 1997.
It was a Friday night, the third anniversary of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Sixty or seventy patrons, myself included, had come to the Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood to see Murnau's 1927 film classic, "Sunrise."
Twenty or 25 minutes into the show, during a silly comedy - "School Days," starring the long-forgotten Larry Semon - when a sound like the biggest paper bag in the world being popped by the biggest hand in the world shattered the quiet theater..
That is what it's like when a high powered hand weapon is fired in close proximity. The old cliché "shots rang out" misstates the case.
Over the next few seconds, three more shots came from the lobby. Then a man dressed in black, later identified as the killer, entered the auditorium, ran down the right hand aisle, and fired two more shots, one directly down one row of seats past several patrons ("I felt the wind," said one lucky survivor), the second shot from the front, barely over the heads of the audience towards the opposite wall.
Meanwhile, the film continued flickering on the screen in the dark theater, now silently - the organist had stopped playing sometime after the third or fourth shot. Only after several more seconds did the movie stop and the lights come on. Audience members one by one discovered that Lawrence Austin, the owner and patron of the Silent Movie Theater, was lying dead out in the lobby, on the other side of the candy counter, with a cleanly drilled hole where his right eye had been.
The young woman who had been working the candy counter was on her knees, praying audibly and beginning to show blood along the front of her sweater from her own gunshot wound.
"If it bleeds, it leads," complain the critics, as they argue that this obsession with crime and death only serves to scare us unreasonably and lead us into antisocial acts such as voting for more police and prisons.
To some extent they are right. The evolution of crime news into a form of daily entertainment akin to scripted soap opera is to be deplored. Still, the intentional, violent death of a fellow human within the confines of what we call civilization ought to be newsworthy. To the shocked survivors, it is an event that demands notice and comment.
Perhaps the survivors' need for public notice is part of the process of self-therapy, a way of bringing out the stress and hurt in order to make them go away. To a certain extent it is a cry for justice, if only the always inadequate speaking to the world that this was our acquaintance, somebody we knew, spoke to, spoke of, somebody who was a part of our lives, even if it was only the man who sold us tickets once a week and chatted with us about a common interest.
This particular case got quite a bit of media attention, beginning with "breaking news" radio and television coverage, and followed by two segments on "America's Most Wanted." I recall being glad for the media coverage at the time.
There is something comforting in knowing that other people are aware of what happened, even if they do not share in one's personal grief. In a sense it is akin to the funeral oration or the words carved on the stone.
Such jarring events force us to think, to confront reality. The real world does not always fit nicely into our preconceived little ideologies. The story just told was a jarring lesson, to me at least, that the opposing views of the gun nuts and the anti-police ideologues are both wrong.
Those who want to sell us on the benefit of permitting thousands of people to carry concealed weapons in public places are simply not aware of the suddenness of it all, the inability to distinguish friend from foe in a dark place filled with noise and movement within the period of a few seconds. In this case, at least, an armed citizenry would not have been of much help.
On the other side of the political spectrum, those who would condemn police officers for making decisions in the urban combat situation, decisions that have to be made right now and can't be put off for even four more seconds, much less till tomorrow, should be more careful about assuming automatically that the decision was brutal or racist or even careless.
Our history and culture encourage us as a people to be engaged in the questions of the day and to participate in the political process. Surely the violent deaths of thousands of our fellow citizens ought to be among the most pressing of public questions.
Yet media critics continue to complain about the news media slogan "If it bleeds it leads" and extend the argument (explicitly or implicitly) to say that this is a bad thing because it scares people unnecessarily.
I remember Ralph Nader explaining in his chiding way (do we dare say "patronizing?") that there is more white collar corporate crime than street crime, as if the two were comparable. I have known people who lost money on the stock market and I have known people who lost a kidney due to a gunshot or suffered a shattered eye socket due to a mugging, and believe me Ralph, they are not the same thing at all.
I sometimes wonder (only a little facetiously) if our news media are not sensationalistic enough. I say this based on a second set of observations in the aftermath of the Silent Movie Theater shootings. As I told the story and listened to other peoples' responses, what became apparent was how prosaic my own story is. It is hard to find a modern American (at least in the cities) who has not had some experience, perhaps second hand, of violent crime.
It is fitting and right that the mainstream news media cover it. First Amendment purists love to tell us that the people have a right to know (typically about the inner workings of government agencies and the like). If the people have a right to know about threats to their welfare due to tax policies and harbor expansions, then certainly they have a right to know about the direct dangers they face in the urban environment.
Of course critics have a point when it comes to long-term saturation coverage of cases in which there is a public titillation factor; the current Peterson murder trial and the Jon Benet Ramsey case come to mind as particularly egregious examples. These cases raise a different issue, namely the fact that the suffocating level of press and television coverage endangers the prospects of a fair trial for whatever suspect eventually comes to trial.
That is not what we are discussing. It is the fact that the everyday outrage that photographs red is what goes on at 6:01 on your local television channel. The people have a right to know that violence is taking place in their community just as much as they need to know about the Governor's latest affair.
I must confess that I have qualms of my own about this process. It has to do with the contempt the mass media have for the privacy of crime victims, in particular those who are lucky enough to still be alive. I think of the young woman who did not choose to have an armed stranger point a gun at her, did not choose to be shot, and certainly would have preferred not to have television cameras recording her transport into a waiting ambulance. On balance, it was right for the media to cover the murder as a big lead story, but the conduct of the reporters and cameramen at the scene raised issues regarding victims' rights.
The January 1997 week in which Austin was killed was a busy week for L.A. homicides. Other celebrated cases that same week included the shooting death of a high school girl sitting in a school bus, hit by a stray shot coming from feuding gangs, as well as the murder of Bill Cosby's son next to a freeway. Media commentators have generally failed to notice that the Los Angeles Police Department solved each of these cases.
There is much to discuss about how the mass media cover urban crime, such as the reality of courtroom practice compared to the tv soap-opera versions, or the conduct and qualifications of judges. But when it comes to the violent deaths of our neighbors and friends, the news media rightly should lead with these stories.