Morgan Freeman Newtown Hoax explains contemporary media, makes everyone sad

Morgan Freeman, midway through a long career explaining things to white people

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that the invention of telegraphy changed the definition of news from what was functionally relevant in the reader’s life—city council meetings, various pox outbreaks, horse for sale—to “news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular…crimes, crashes, fires, floods became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day.’” Postman worried that news, divorced by distance from any functional impact on the lives of people who read it, could too easily become speculation, spectacle, amusement. He had not seen the internet yet. Nor did he see the Morgan Freeman Newtown Hoax, perhaps the exemplar of our bold new age.

Freeman’s representative has confirmed that it is a hoax. Its provenance is unknown; the Inquisitr, barely more reputable than the Facebook it covers, believes that it began as a Reddit comment that another commenter jokingly said would be more widely disseminated if it were attributed to Freeman or Betty White.

Don’t make a joke about how stupid people are, because irony will make it come true. You don’t need Morgan Freeman’s publicist to know that he did not write that statement. You just need rudimentary critical reading skills. The odds that Freeman would use the phrase “off himself in a basement” to discuss the murder of children 24 hours after it happened seem low—right down there with the likelihood that CNN would note that, if the body count from Newtown “holds up,” it will rank as the second-worst school shooting in American history.

Such turns of phrase are the mark of the confident amateur. What really gives the lie to Freeman’s putative authorship, however, is the central thesis. At the risk of editorializing, the claim that events like the Newtown shooting happen because the media reports them is imbecilic.

Adam Lanza did not shoot 26 people because the news covered the man who did something similar in Clackamas. The complaint that reports of the tragedy have yet to “focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity” is indignant the way only pure idiocy can be. One is reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when an asteroid nearly destroys Springfield and, to prevent such catastrophes in the future, they burn down the observatory.

The impulse to blame mass shootings on news reports of mass shootings reflects a childlike desire for our problems to go away without us doing anything about them. For whatever reasons, American society has produced an inordinately large number of people who arbitrarily killed strangers. It could be the ready availability of guns or the paucity of mental health services or some more complex constellation of factors, all of which demand compromise and inventive thinking.

Or it’s that damned media! They should not tell us when someone shoots 20 schoolchildren, or they should report the deaths of the children by name without telling us what happened. The wildfire popularity of the Morgan Freeman Newtown Hoax tells us something about how ready we are for serious conversations about the problems facing this country. Yet it also contains an echo of Postman’s complaint.

The murder of 26 strangers by an insane man in Connecticut does not functionally affect me. Postman would say that it enters my life not as an event, not as information, but as news. It is therefore a species of narrative—not fiction, exactly, because it actually happened, but a thing that exists only insofar as it is reported to me. Without the news, I wouldn’t know about it. And it is horrible.

Compare that level of reality to the reality of the statement “Morgan Freeman wrote this response to the Newtown shootings.” Both reach me as reports, not as events or consequences. Neither is something I can easily verify myself. One of them was quickly disproven for me. The other—well, I’m going to wait, but I don’t hold out much hope.

Can you blame people for wishing the news did not exist in this context? Wouldn’t it be nice if, after you heard that a crazy man shot 20 six year-olds, another person came and told you that never happened and CNN was being disciplined accordingly?

That would be about the best thing someone could tell you in this situation. The second best might be if someone told you that no one would else would shoot anybody if only you never heard about it—if they said that “you can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news.” That would be a pleasing thing for someone to tell you, except that they would be lying.

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  1. Re: “At the risk of editorializing, the claim that events like the Newtown shooting happen because the media reports them is imbecilic.”

    I heard the other D. Brooks (NYT) say this very thing on NPR this weekend.

  2. “American society has produced an inordinately large number of people who arbitrarily killed strangers. It could be the ready availability of guns or the paucity of mental health services or some more complex constellation of factors, all of which demand compromise and inventive thinking.”

    It could be those things, and some other things in the constellation of factors, but it can’t be the media. That is imbecilic. When has media ever influenced society and developmental outcomes in individuals? Material factors like guns and physiological factors like mental health produce outcomes in individuals. Cultural factors like media does not.

    Have I got it about right?

  3. I detect sarcasm, although it’s possible my equipment has been damaged by exposure to the internet. The media both reflects culture and shapes it, because it _is_ culture, and in that sense I think it should be implicated in events like Newtown. I am probably guilty of underestimating the effects of culture to serve my own biases.

    I think, though, that mental illness and having a device that can deliver a dozen lethal blows at distance in as many seconds are more proximate causes in this case than the media—particularly the news. Blaming accurate reports of murder for subsequent murders is like saying that watching a lot of baseball made Mickey Mantle a great baseball player. That was probably part of it, but it seems like the least part.

  4. PJ, can you help me find the David Brooks commentary you’re referring to? He hasn’t written anything on NYTimes.

    He was on NPR All Things Considered today, but didn’t say anything was imbecilic about people’s attitudes regarding media. The closest thing was that he said we shouldn’t publish the name of the killer, which might place him in the camp that the media does help inspire this behavior.

    He was on PBS on December 12th he went farther, saying “I think it would be helpful in the media if we did not publicize these people, especially if they have committed suicide. Don’t put them on the cover of magazines. Don’t put their faces on TV. Don’t release their names. I somehow think that would diminish some of the perverse heroism of them.”

  5. No one could disagree that bullet accelerators are the proximal cause of death in this case. However, for effective policy, it’s worth considering the more complex constellation of factors. We may be able to intervene in some factors more easily than others. Getting new gun control legislation through the 113th Congress and funding its enforcement would address the obvious proximal cause, but that does not necessarily make it a tenable solution. Nor is increasing the ability of parents/professionals to lock up or medicate into oblivion the mentally ill an achievable strategy. These two areas may dwarf the influence of media glamorization, but I know that news departments recognize their coverage of massacres skirts a thin line, and shifting that line is readily achievable. I’m not making a case that media should be the angle of attack, I just don’t understand why it is imbecilic.

    Your/Postman’s point about this being the do-nothing feel-good option is well taken. I would say that gun control and controlling the mentally ill are at least as notional when we sit down and think about what either would actually involve.

  6. When you fire a ton of bullets in to innocent people and then one into yourself, how is this different than a suicide bomber? Is being a suicide bomber the act of a troubled mind? I would say so. Should we take steps to keep people from building bombs? Probably so. Did he do it because the Dan Rather told him to build a bomb, or because Brian Williams glorified past bombers? Absolutely not. Did he do it because of games, music or movies? No again. Did he do it because he was troubled and had the means to do it? Yes. How is this so hard to understand people?

  7. I would blame the proverbial ‘force multiplier’, i.e. the AR-15 assault rifle architecture, then I think it’s worth pointing out that the Virginia Tech guy killed something like 30 adults with a .22 handgun and a 9mm glock. Good luck getting those off the streets, with or without more gun control laws. Not to mention the Defense Distributed project, which aims to produce a file of instructions for a 3D printer to turn a block of plastic into a working firearm. I believe they already have one that fired several rounds before falling apart.

    One could blame our insistence on having gun-free zones such as schools and workplaces, except for the gentleman who took out more than a few in the middle of a military base.

    One could blame American culture, but there’s that fellow in Norway who killed like 70 people in one go.

    I think it’s just what Tom said. The guy wanted to do it and he had the means. We should just throw up our hands in despair and forget preventing this from happening to others. But if you don’t want it to happen to you, then get yourself a gun, carry it everywhere, don’t go into crowded open spaces, don’t go into crowded closed in spaces either, and when the time comes to defend yourself bystanders be damned. Of course, it might be more economical to buy a lightning rod and install it on your head.

  8. One positive side effect of the media coverage is that millions of people did not assume that the Newtown shooter was a crazed islamic jihadist and start shooting Americans who “look arab”. (This was an erroneous assumption in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings.)

    Whether IRA bombs in Belfast; suicide bombers in Tel Aviv; a fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City; shooting from a Texas tower; murdering members of the Kirkwood, MO city council; blasting Gabriel Gifford and a six year old; or shooting people in a Mall, a theater, or a high school, these are act of domestic terrorism. Maybe Homeland Security should be paying attention to the “chatter” of civilians repeatedly buying assault weaponry, pipe bomb ingredients, and bullet proof vests. Surely such a pattern of behavior is as worthy of law enforcement inquiry as owning a barking dog.

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