My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

You Can't Trust the Media

Regular denizens of this blog ring will remember this post and discussion over at the Tally Ho, about how the New York Times getting a fluff story about lesbian kisses on Buffy wrong was emblematic of the paper's decline into fact free blathering.

I couldn't help but notice the big time media got it wrong again today. This time it was cable news giant CNN. Once again it's not a big point, but it's further proof that these people are even less likely to do basic fact-checking than I am. In today's story on the capture of the suspected BTK killer, CNN's Soledad O'Brien talked to Candice DeLong, a former FBI profiler about the latest:
O'BRIEN: They certainly want the challenge of that. He's been described -- Dennis Rader, the suspect, has been described as the president of his church, a good neighbor, people loved him. I mean, it is almost, frankly, a cliche.

DELONG: Right.

O'BRIEN: Quiet guy, everybody loved him. You're laughing. Why are you laughing?

DELONG: No, I'm just -- isn't it all just perfect? It made me think of John Wayne -- I'm laughing through my tears, by the way. John Wayne Gacy killed so many young boys, and it turned out he entertained children as a clown.

O'BRIEN: So then is it just typical of that -- I mean, I guess what people always want to know is, explain that dichotomy. How is it that someone could be -- if indeed this man is convicted, can be president of their church group and then also be facing sentencing or facing trial for...

DELONG: Involved in the activities that they're charged with.

O'BRIEN: Exactly. I mean, that, I think, is the hard part for the community to get their minds around.

DELONG: Well, it is hard. But I think we all have multifaceted personalities. We don't all have a secret life where we're killing when no one else knows.

It seems such a dichotomy, but these crimes, as we know, are almost always committed in private. And it's a very, very secret part of the individual's life that he or she is able to compartmentalize and just keep that little killing part of their life over here.

And then during the day, in their waking hours, many of these people are married family men. They're -- of course, we know of nurses and doctors that have been serial killers. And when they're not killing patients, they're taking very good care of them.

O'BRIEN: I'll tell you, much more is going to come out about this. I think it's just going to be fascinating to know what was at the end of the day behind -- behind all of this.

DELONG: Oh, I think so, too.

You've heard this discussion, using almost the same words, "quiet one, good neighbor, blah blah blah" trotted out again and again in the sensationalistic coverage of serial killers in the media. The problem here is, the story they're telling doesn't bear any resemblence to the truth. In fact, Rader's neighbors mostly couldn't stand the guy and though he was un uptight, nosy, powermad prick:

Most residents who lived near Rader described him as a bureaucratic bully, an ordinance enforcement officer for this Wichita suburb who often went out of his way to find reasons to issue citations.

One neighbor said Rader was once seen measuring grass in a front yard with a tape measure to see if it was too long. Another recalled catching Rader filming his house, documenting possible violations.
. . .
Rader, 59, moved into the neighborhood around 1976 and graduated from Wichita State University in 1979. Although he studied criminal justice, Rader never became a police officer, instead going into code enforcement, or what Reno called "a glorified dog catcher."
. . .
Bill Lindsay, 38, lived behind Rader and said something about the man unnerved him. Lindsay said his wife caught Rader in their adjoining backyards filming the back of their house.

"He really acted really funny," said Lindsay, a truck driver. "I'd be on the road and my wife would tell me, 'Dennis has been out again, taking his pictures.'"

"Nice guy, good neighbor, people loved him?" I know it's a small point, but I think it's important. It reveals the media telling the story they are prepared to tell, fitting details into a narrative they've already written, too busy following the script to even try to understand the truth. So he was active in his church, that doesn't mean he was a good neighbor and eveyone loved him. While they didn't suspect he was a serial killer, at least some of his neighbors thoght he was an insufferable ass. A little basic investigation would have revealed this.

I read in the paper a few weeks back about all the planning that has gone in to the news coverage of the Pope's death. What? you ask, He's dead? No, if he was dead, you wouldn't be able to avoid hearing about it, because a whole week-long media frenzy has been mostly pre-taped already. Interviews are on file, collages of his greatest hits, what have you, all lined up to go. Every time the guy coughs, an editor looks over the "Pope Dead!" story to freshen up the part that have gotten dated. This is exacly what happened when Reagan died. The media went into this whole "Nation in Mourning" frenzy, even though nobody really cared that much. Even to people who loved him, he'd been gone a long time. So most people just felt releived that Nancy could get some sleep now, whatever their politics. But the news media had already taped the whole damn story, and spent a lot of money on it, so damned if they weren't going to air it.


Trope said...

The media, to a certain extent, creates reality. So it makes sense that they would have (what they decide will be) pivotal moments prepared. I remember more about Reagan's death than the Columbia explosion, just because it was so well prepped and repeated. No one knows what to do with unexpected news anymore. Ten years later, Reagan's death (and the upcoming death of the pope) will be part of the national consciousness, while surprising, even traumatic news will not be collectively remembered in the same way--because we didn't all hear the same story at the same time.

Blogs are just as much a part of this phenomenon as the mainstream media; surf around your top five and listen for the echolalia. We can bemoan its existence, but this kind of storytelling will never change, only move to a different medium.

Bob said...

Do with this what you want, but I saw an interview with the priest of that church that he was so active in, and the priest seemed to say that he was an OK guy.

But your bigger point is taken.

Heidi said...

Have I mentioned that I was the local history librarian in Wichita for two years? We had quite the collection of newspaper clippings and other materials on BTK, but while I was there the only people who ever used it were those trench-coat-wearing teens who also liked reading about the local ghost legends. That collection of clippings is probably torn to shreds by now.