The sniper, gun ownership & the news media

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Mon Nov 4 02:51:48 MST 2002

The soul-searching inspired by Columbine is no longer patriotic. Far easier
to dismiss the sniper as an al Qaeda sympathiser than question how he came
to have a gun in the first place

SmallWorld: Aaron Hicklin in New York
The Sunday Herald, 3 November 2002

You didn't have to be a cynic to detect a note of disappointment among CNN's
breathless Kens and Barbies when the so-called Beltway sniper and his
teenage accomplice were caught. After three weeks of gleeful saturation
coverage, in which Chief Moose couldn't fart without CNN announcing it as
'breaking news', the capture represented the climax of the ultimate reality
show. Hour after hour, 'Hunt for the Killer' was a great hit, with viewers
living vicariously through the video loops of the latest crime, or the banal
pontifications of self-appointed experts.

You know you've reached a new nadir in cable news when a station invites
actors who play investigators on telly to comment on the sniper's tactics.
So if CNN stopped short last week of setting up a hotline for those
suffering withdrawal symptoms it could hardly have been for reasons of
taste, a line that channel crossed long ago. As Moose retorted to a reporter
who asked if he had a personal message for the sniper: 'Ma'am, this is not
entertainment' .

But Moose was wrong. The sniper was primetime entertainment, and so was
Moose -- the made-for-TV detective, whose name was one letter removed from
Morse. Clench-jawed, forceful and black, he gave an Emmy-winning performance
as the foil to the sniper's dastardly genius. You could almost hear the TV
execs gagging with pleasure when he started using the cameras to talk
directly to the sniper. This was TV heaven, with supersonic ratings to
match. Just in case it was still too much like news, CNN tastefully dressed
up its coverage with jazzy graphics and a dramatic signature tune that
rolled every five minutes. Not to be outdone, rival channel, Fox News,
canvassed the 'exclusive' views of Son of Sam serial killer, David
Berkowitz, a man who claimed that he was under orders of a dog owned by a
next-door neighbour named Sam when he committed a string of murders in 1977.
Useful to have his insights, then.

It's little wonder the sniper began thinking he was God -- a condition he
shared with the TV reporters who thought Moose was working for them. When
the police chief resisted revealing sensitive evidence at a news briefing,
self-aggrandising journalists berated him for endangering the lives of
'innocent children' as if they cared a whit.

It is not over. It is merely the end of the beginning. There will be a
trial, and grand finale when Muhammad and his teenage sidekick go to their
deaths in a dismal reprise of the execution of Oklahoma bomber, Timothy
McVeigh, another non-entity turned into a celebrity. Prosecutors in Virginia
and Alabama are champing at the bit to try them as there are no state laws
stopping them from putting a juvenile to death. What of the other news, you
may well ask. What indeed?

Like some cloistered monks emerging from self-imposed isolation, the average
American watching CNN could be forgiven for asking last week, 'Bali bombing?
What Bali bombing?' The birth of the 24-hour news channel was supposed to
herald more news, more of the time, but like the cinema multiplex more has
turned out to be mean considerably less. Bali wasn't the only thing that CNN
and Fox skated over. The small issue of gun control was barely touched upon.
Given the endless speculation about the type of gun the sniper was using,
the absence of any real discussion of gun laws said a lot about the way in
which 9/11 has changed the terms of debate in this country. The kind of
soul-searching inspired by the Columbine High School massacre four years ago
is no longer patriotic. Far easier to dismiss the sniper as a sympathiser
with Al Qaeda than to question how he came to have his gun in the first

Among many Americans, it's an article of faith that guns save more lives
than they destroy, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Attacking the
freedom to carry one is tantamount to attacking America. If anything, gun
laws are set to become more relaxed in two years when Congress votes to lift
a ban on semi-automatics passed by Clinton. The Washington sniper won't
change that, not least because a media so obviously turned on by violence
won't let it.

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