Here are the first five headlines in this morning’s Washington Post email, itself headed “Tuesday’s Headlines”: “The Air Force says it failed to follow procedures, allowing Texas church shooter to obtain firearms,” by Alex Horton; “Devin Patrick Kelley had a violent past, records indicate,” by Eli Rosenberg and Wesley Lowery (that was the click-through headline; the one on the e-mail was “Gunman had hurt people and animals years before mass shooting); “Trump says ‘hundreds more’ might have died in Texas shooting if gun laws were tougher,” by David Nakamura; “The lives lost in Sutherland Springs, Tex.,” a gallery of thumbnail biographies and photographs of the slain by Washington Post reporters; and, “In Sutherland Springs, a mass shooting draws desire for more — not fewer — guns,” by Peter Holley and Joel Achenbach.
Unlike the first reports of the massacre the previous day, one of the articles mentions the name of Stephen Willeford, a neighbor who grabbed his own gun and shot the assailant, forcing him to flee, and another that of Johnnie Langendorff who, with Mr. Willeford, pursued the killer in his (Mr. Langendorff’s) pick-up. Another Post story about Mr. Langendorff by Kyle Swenson and Marwa Eltagouri (“An unlikely hero describes gun battle and 95mph pursuit of Texas shooting suspect”) didn’t make the cut for the “Tuesday’s Headlines” e-mail.
It will be apparent that the emphasis in the paper’s coverage is on (a) scandal or potential scandal involving either somebody’s negligence in failing to spot the killer in advance of his crime or words of Mr. Trump’s which the paper’s editors regard as self-evidently false; (b) the killer himself and any possible motive he might have had for his crime; and (c) the pathos of victimhood. That cannot be surprising. Nor can the relative neglect of those who, fifty or sixty years ago would naturally have been the focus of any popular newspaper’s coverage, the heroes (especially if they were “unlikely”) who put a stop to the killer’s evil-doing.
As my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Ari Schulman has pointed out, there is evidence that the people who commit mass murders are influenced by extensive press coverage of others who have committed similar crimes, and yet somehow the media sleuths never seem to find their own coverage of such events as having anything to do with the killers’ motives. I wonder if things would be different if more in the media followed the lead of the London Daily Telegraph, which was the only paper I saw either in the United States or the United Kingdom to lead with what the British call the “have-a-go-heroes” of Sutherland Springs.
That paper has traditionally given more play to such people than any other as part of a more general journalistic conservatism, and if theirs were more typical of the media in covering and, frankly, celebrating such men (for they nearly always are men), it is at least possible that there would be fewer such incidents. My belief is that the anti-heroic mood of most of the media and, with it, the official culture they represent creates a cultural gap into which obvious sociopaths like the Texas shooter feel they can slip to become what passes in the shameless celebrity culture of the media for heroes themselves. The journalistic concentration on their stories and their motives and their grievances, in all of which their name is repeated and their fame grows, and the neglect of those who stop or apprehend them can only encourage them in this belief.