Tragedy & Controversy

It’s unbelievable. When my wife told me last evening what had happened at Virginia Tech, I was stupefied. 30 dead, 32, 33. And no real answers yet. How did this happen? What happened? I did what thousands around the country did, I’m sure – do I know anyone there? Is there anyone I have to check on? When I got home, we watched as the tragedy’s scope unfolded … and then something else, something darker, started to happen.

The media went from reporting the news to creating the news. Instead of reporting what was going on, suddenly CNN, MSNBC, FOX and the rest started pointing fingers, finding conspiracies, asking ‘pointed questions’ which had no purpose other than generating more controversy, which of course would create more interest and more viewers.

Let me get one thing straight before this rant gets going – I grieve for those 32 dead people and their families. I don’t grieve for the SOB who did it. He should rot in all 199 flavors of hell, with extra helpings of S&M and PeeWee Herman reruns in Pig Gaelic for eternity. But I feel for all of those victimized by this bastard.

But the news media is REALLY pissing me off.

REPORT the frickin’ news, don’t make your own

As of early last night, we knew only a few certain things:

  • 2 people were killed in a dorm by a shooter
  • 30 people were killed in Norris Hall by a shooter, who killed himself.
  • Several people were injured

The rest was speculation or being developed. The 7:30 news conference revealed more facts, but police were being cautious because there were things being investigated, and they felt it too early to give answers when they were still interviewing, going over evidence and trying to figure it out themselves. Among the few things that they did tell us:

  • They were speaking to a “person of interest” for the 1st shooting who was not the suspect.
  • An email was sent by the university and was received by students at about 9:26
  • Police had reasonable reason to believe that the shooter in the first murders had left campus, and that it was an isolated, domestic incident.

Let’s review those last two: “They had reason to believe,” meaning that based on the evidence they had at that time, they were led to believe that it was an isolated incident and that the killer had already fled. Meaning, that they didn’t have anything to make them think he would come back to another building on campus and start killing so many people.


Then the media pundits began their work. Instead of focusing on the story, the tragedy, the survivors – as reporters are supposed to do – they started angling for tomorrow’s story, in essence trying to MAKE news. “Who’s to Blame?”, “Who Did Something Wrong?”, “Who Should We Lynch In Our Reports?” became the question being asked.

Hindsight is a great way to see things in 20/20, but the media’s attempts to assign blame – especially so early – was repugnant. Granted, most of my venom is toward CNN, because that is our usual poison of choice, but they should all be ashamed. The way they stepped into the condemnation game was short-sighted and ridiculous; but what should I expect from a ‘news’ outlet that thinks ANYTHING about Britney Spears short of her dying is “Breaking News”, or that has far too often reported things inaccurately in the attempt to scoop its rivals?

First off, while the administration at Virginia Tech will be the first to admit that things did not go well, and that they need to re-evaluate their crisis management strategy, the idea that they should have cancelled classes immediately after the first murders is ludicrous. Let me give you a scenario. A double-murder occurs at a dorm on the campus of Temple/USC/University of Houston/Detroit University, to which police respond and make the determination that this was a crime of passion, and that the suspect has left the scene. What would happen?

My guess is that it would be treated as a murder, evidence would be collected, an APB would be put out for the suspect, witnesses would be interviewed and an investigation would start. They would probably clear out and secure the dormitory. I can almost guarantee that none of them would cancel all classes and lock down the school based on the evidence at hand. Keep in mind that the evidence pointed to a singular event, not the beginning of a bloodbath. They wouldn’t have wanted to make it a campus-wide panic over what appeared to be a tragic – but limited – event.

If the evidence had pointed elsewhere – such as to a gunman who had obviously lost it and was a danger to the public – they would have/should have reacted much differently. The police would have put out calls for backup, they would have called in SWAT, and the administration would have presumably gotten word out immediately to all areas – including radio outlets – that there was a clear-and-present danger and followed their developed crisis plan. They already did it at the beginning of the school year, and it worked. They had a plan. There was – tragically – no reason for them to think they needed to implement it here.

And yet, CNN and its cursed brethren are lamenting the fact that they didn’t shut down the school immediately. This isn’t a one-room schoolhouse or even a single-building high-school campus. This is a university campus, and what happens in one doesn’t necessarily translate to others. Fire, chemical spill or even physical assault on a professor wouldn’t shut down campus – they would isolate the situation and then react accordingly. Granted, those are usually controlled situations which are by nature limited to a single place, but the principle holds.

faulty to A POINT (THEIRS)

In fact, there were multiple times when they glossed over or ignored facts to belabor the point of blame. Despite the police saying that they had no reason to believe that there was a second shooter out there, two different ‘correspondents’ on CNN said that they might be looking for one. Police said that they still weren’t sure that there was a link between the murder sites – because they were still investigating. Ever heard of verifying the facts before you report on them, CNN?

Another time, Paula Zahn made the comment that we were still unsure if the shooter had fired all of the shots or if police had also fired. Um, NO, Paula – they were very clear on that. How clear? How about when they said that there was NO firefight, that police did not fire their weapons. I guess that’s not clear enough for you? At least correspondent Brianna Keilar was there to correct you – at least SHE was listening.

mistakes WERE MADE

Obviously, the email method of notification failed in this case, seeing as how most people didn’t receive it until after the second murders had already begun – or even until after they were complete. But reflect on this: if the second set of murders had NOT occurred, would anyone be questioning the administrations decision to send the email, albeit late, once they had what they thought was sufficient information? I believe that it’s only in the face of the greater tragedy, of hindsight and with the whole picture in focus that the failings of that method become apparent. What about if the murderer had come back 30 minutes after the email? Would students have reacted differently, or would the message become the focus of thousands of conversations in and outside of the classrooms? I don’t think we would have seen a throng of fleeing students heading to their own dorms, fearing for their lives. Instead, it would have most likely been a smaller fraction who went for safety while the rest went about their day in cautious wariness.

But let’s go back to the perfect world again, where the administration takes the cautious approach and shuts down classes immediately after learning about the murders, sends out that email to students and secures dorms and other buildings. Would it have mattered? This individual obviously was on a mission and made it to a building through the throngs of students without anyone noting his presence until it was too late; in fact, not unti he had already chained the doors closed.

My guess is that the tragedy may have still occurred, although in a different fashion. Maybe, just maybe, he would have been dissuaded from his mission by the quickly clearing campus, instead settling on adding only one to the death toll. More likely, though, is that he would have made his way into one of the secured buildings to begin his rampage. He was a student, after all – he could have entered his own dorm and started the massacre there instead. He could have gone to a neighboring dorm where some friendly face would have let another fleeing student in the door as they kept an eye out for the killer. And the mayhem would have begun there. Or another classroom building where students and administrators were hiding.

Or he could have simply seen people fleeing and known that his moment was at hand – and started firing into the crowds rushing to places of safety. The quads, the walking paths, the parking lots could all have been sites for the bloodbath that ensued. This wasn’t a man who took advantage of an opportunity. The amount of ammunition, the locking of the doors, the terminator-style method says differently – people were going to die, period.

Yes, more armed guards and police throughout the campus could have mitigated that, and they should have probably been sent out as a precaution. They might have seen a suspcious man walking the campus with a look that said that bad things were surrounding him. Maybe they would have seen him chaining the door and reacted – maybe they would have even seen him in the building and stopped him there. There are a ton of maybes, but all of them are hindsight-based – legimate scenarios to play through and to consider when recreating the crisis plan, but not avenues of blame for what happened.

There is one reason this happened, one person to blame. The shooter.

Things could have been done differently that may or may not have changed the outcome. But I don’t feel that the administration made any grevious errors in their decisions. Hopefully they learn from the hindsight, from the questions, from the accusations as we all will. But the media really needs to get it’s head out of its ass and stop pointing fingers. Blame won’t bring those people pack. Blame won’t make their deaths any easier to live with for their friends and families. What we need is understanding and solutions to make sure it doesn’t happen again.


3 Responses to “Tragedy & Controversy

  • This is a really thoughtful response to a situation that has everyone shaken and overwhelmed. I’m in grad school and all of my classes are held in the library. If I knew that some guy shot his girlfriend on the other side of campus, would I stay home and not go to class? Of course not. It’s not even that I refuse to let fear dictate my life, it’s simply that I wouldn’t even assume I had anything to fear. It’s a tragic situation and sometimes journalists try to heard to cover controversy, to ask the questions they think everyone wants to know, and to play watchdog even when one isn’t always needed.

  • You’re completely on the mark with the journalistic orgy that begins during any sort of news event of this magnitude. The media sensationalizes everything even when the story doesn’t require it (if it ever does for that matter).

    I stayed away from the papers, news talk, etc just to digest everything a bit yesterday. I’m not sure if I’m ready today either.

  • I’m not really sure how to respond to this post except that I agree completely. I appreciate that journalists want to investigate various angles to a story, but they should do just that — investigate. Unless they actually find something, and evidence to back up their findings, they shouldn’t speculate about things, especially when that involves pointing the finger at people who are already hurting due to the actions of a crazed gunman. I don’t think anyone mishandled the situation (other than the media).

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