News Media’s Performance on Newtown Murders Has Been Dismal

It is remarkable how self-righteous America’s reporters and editors tend to be, when their own performance is so often dismal and their own motivations so frequently base. The Newtown massacre is the latest of many stories that illustrate the point.

Desperate to profit by satisfying the public’s thirst for information about the Sandy Hook murders, news outlets–just about all of them, as far as I can tell–rushed to publicize “facts” that turned out to be largely wrong. They reported that Ryan Lanza was a mass murderer, when in fact he is a respectable accountant who learned of the murders–and his own alleged responsibility–via CNN, while working in his office in Times Square.

They reported that the killer’s younger brother was found in the woods after the murders, and was hauled out while protesting his innocence. Adam Lanza didn’t have a younger brother, and we have heard nothing further about this second person who supposedly had something to do with the killings. They told us that Nancy Lanza was a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook and was murdered in her classroom, along with her students. It turned out that she had no connection to Sandy Hook and was shot at home as she lay in her bed, likely asleep. They reported, entirely falsely, that Lanza had murdered his father in New Jersey. On fact after fact, the news media turned out to be wrong. Likely more errors will emerge over time.

The broader and more important question relates to the news media’s responsibility for Sandy Hook and similar incidents. As I wrote here, it seems rather obvious that mass murderers like Adam Lanza are inspired in part by a desire for fame, which our news media are happy to supply. That is why these incidents feed off one another, as we have seen in recent weeks. Newspaper editorialists demand that we engage in “soul-searching” after a mass murder like Sandy Hook, but why? You and I could search our souls forever and come up with no connection to the crime. But our newspapers and television stations really ought to search their souls and consider whether they are encouraging spectacular, deadly crimes, and if so, how they can reform their own conduct.

Then there is the moronic manner in which our news media talk about firearms. Their anti-gun animus is palpable. Glenn Reynolds notes an instance on PBS in which commentator Mark Shields, uncontradicted by his hosts or the supposed conservative on the show, David Brooks, made the absurd claim that it is “easier in many states . . . to buy an automatic weapon than it is to rent an automobile.” In fact, automatic weapons are rare, in part because you can’t buy one without a special license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Automatic weapons have not figured in any of the recent shooting incidents.

Then we have the “assault rifle.” There is no such thing as an assault rifle or assault weapon. These terms were invented for purely political reasons in the early 1990s by gun control advocates, and the 1994 legislation that banned “assault weapons” defined the term in an arbitrary manner, by reciting various cosmetic features of firearms. In part because the ban had no logical coherence, it was ineffectual and was allowed to expire in 2004. Now various Democrats, like Dianne Feinstein and Joe Lieberman, are calling for a renewal of the “assault weapons” ban. Because it did so much good last time, presumably.

A reader writes:

Which sentence are you more likely to see in the MSM?

“Opponents of the constitutional right to privacy and choice use the term ‘partial birth abortion’, which is not recognized by medical practitioners, to describe a form of late term medical procedure used in pregnancy termination.”

“Opponents of the second amendment right to keep and bear arms use the term ‘assault rifle’, which is not recognized by military or firearms experts, to describe a variety of repeat fire trigger devices on ordinary weapons used for hunting or shooting sports.”

Examples of the media’s ignorance of firearms could be multiplied endlessly, but here is another one: the Associated Press tells us breathlessly that “Conn. gunman had hundreds of rounds of ammunition, enough to kill almost every student.”

The gunman in the Connecticut shooting rampage was carrying an arsenal of hundreds of rounds of especially deadly ammunition — enough to kill just about every student in the school if given enough time, authorities said Sunday, raising the chilling possibility that the bloodbath could have been far worse.

“Hundreds of rounds” is actually a small quantity. I have hundreds of rounds of ammunition in my range bag at nearly all times. The question is not how many rounds of ammunition a person has, but whether he intends to use them to murder elementary school students. Or his mother.

In this instance, Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster rifle that belonged to his mother. You can read about it here. The Bushmaster is a semi-automatic rifle, so when you pull the trigger, it fires one bullet.

Semi-automatic weapons are designed so that firing the gun pulls another bullet into the chamber; the concept has been around since the late 19th century. Countless numbers of semi-automatic weapons are in circulation; I own two of them.

The awful possibility raised by the Associated Press, that Lanza could have killed all of the children at Sandy Hook, was apparently forestalled by the arrival of policemen around ten minutes into the atrocity, at which point Lanza shot himself. But nothing about the Bushmaster rifle that Lanza used contributed significantly to that threat. Given that there apparently was no one present at the school but small children and unarmed women, he could just as easily have killed them with the semi-automatic pistols that he also carried; or, for that matter, with a 19th-century revolver, if it was in good working order. Or with a sword or knife, if he was a little bigger and stronger. The limit on the number of people he could kill was the time it took the police to get word of the shootings and arrive at the scene. As the saying goes, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.

As a cause of death, school shootings are statistically almost non-existent. Lightning strikes kill more people, by two orders of magnitude. But if we think that school shootings demand effective action, as President Obama said in a televised address tonight, then the obvious course is to post an armed guard at every school. The problem with this approach is its expense; the same amount of money spent in many other ways could no doubt save more lives. But if we decide the expense is worthwhile, there are creative ways to raise the money. We could impose a tax on Hollywood–so many million dollars for every movie in which more than one person dies violently. Same for video games. And we could tax media outlets: any media outlet that has publicized mass shootings in the past pays one percent of its gross revenue to contribute to the cost of armed guards at schools.

School shootings are an eminently solvable problem. All we need is political will–not to ban “assault weapons,” which would do no good at all, but rather, to find creative funding mechanisms to pay the cost of adequate security. If school shootings are a problem that must be solved, it is time for Hollywood, video game makers, CNN and the New York Times to pay their fair share.

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