Last Friday there was a virtual media frenzy as members of cable news teams stormed into the home of the alleged San Bernardino shooters and uncovered...well, nothing. Bob reports from Redlands, California on what to make of the press's behavior.
"Open Book" by Cake
BOB: This was Monday, 5 days after the San Bernardino massacre and just over 5 miles from the site of the crime. A cable news crew had found a familiar location for a stand up.
FOX NEWSCASTER: Okay on cam tag… Investigators don’t know -- excuse me. Investigators say they don’t know if anyone was in volved -- excuse me. Investigators say they don’t know if anyone else was involved in the plotting on the attack, and at this point they see no evidence of any planning from outside the United States. In Redlands, California, Jonathan Hunt, Fox News…... Do you want to do another one of those?
BOB: Behind him, the boarded up condo apartment at 53 North Center Street, Redlands, was already an iconic image, because not only did the alleged killers live and conspire there, it had already been the scene of an historic moment in the annals of breaking and entering.
SANDERS: Kind of overwhelming here with the number of crews that are here, but we have a bedroom here and spread out on the... spread out appears to be credit cards and IDs. So here's one of the ones, so here's an ID. So here we go so California ID,
BOB: MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders last Friday, sifting through the banal detritus of evil.
SANDERS: Ok, I'm gonna step away here. Ok, I take it we don't wanna see the pictures, why don't I just sort of look at some of this and reveal that we have things like social security cards from Reyfa Farook, we have a revenue support clerk business services from kaiser permanente.
MITCHELL: So basically healthcare cards, driver's licenses.
BOB: Moments earlier, dozens of journalists had stormed the premises, rifling frantically through the COUPLE’S belongings like bargain hunters at Loehmann’s. The unexpected real-time episode of The Lives of the Dead and Infamous was so sudden, so unstoppable, and so unhinged that social media exploded in revulsion. Even CNN’s Anderson Cooper expressed incredulity at what he was showing his own viewers.
COOPER: Harry it just strikes me as bizarre what we’re seeing, and have you… I mean, is this common?
BOB: Not really. But yet it seemed like the apotheosis of what disgusts the majority of Americans who are disgusted with the media.
NATURE DOC VO: Vultures, jackals, and hyenas vie with each other, each taking its share where it can, using the tools at its disposal. Ra zor beaks, serrated teeth, or grinding jaws.
BOB: A bunch of slavering scavengers? Hold the thought. Where have we ever seen anything like this before? A door broken through, a breathtaking breach, an uncontrollable dark force?
THE SHINING: Heeeeere’s Johnny
BOB: No, I mean a really dark force, cynical, greedy, and shameless…
GERALDO RIVERA: Now, what if anything that vault contains, we don’t know. This is an adventure you and I are going to be taking together.
BOB: Yes, it had its echoes. But at least Geraldo never acted like Al Capone’s vault mattered. Once again, last Friday on MSNBC:
SANDERS: Ah, now as I turn around here, I think I find something interesting. As we look at the floor here, this is a prayer rug. So this prayer rug may have been, I'm not sure which way, but you would face it towards Mecca.
BOB: If Twitter blew up with rage, the neighbors of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were somewhat more philosophical. Or, let’s say ambivalent. One woman, who stopped to pose for a Facebook selfie in front of the boarded up door, spoke to me approvingly of the coverage,
WOMAN 1: It was a - what they call - a media circus. [laughs] There were so many newsmen here.
WOMAN 2: Glad I guess to see how uh the media was covering this and giving us a first view of you know what had happened there.
WOMAN 3: I think they way they were pushing each other was pretty repulsive. I mean I don’t mind news reporting as long as they don’t act like animals while they’re doing it.
BOB: Linda Hamilton and her husband live directly across Center Street from the shooters’ condo. Last Friday as the frenzy unfolded, they toggled between their window and the tv, and as she viewed, Linda pondered the salient question:
HAMILTON: I kept asking myself so what is the media really responsible for reporting to the public, what does the public really need to know, versus what is just pure sensationalism. you know… It’s a hard line to draw, but the facts rather than speculation would be one part of it.
BOB: Well, yes, that. But, of course, in her very question also lies the explanation: in the natural vacuum of authoritative information in the hours and days after a tragedy -- whether a crime, or a natural disaster -- there is a lot of airtime to fill. And any new detail takes on disproportionate value, wherein all rationality is displaced by what Alan Greenspan has called “irrational exuberance” and what is usually called “mania.” And if you can show a picture of it, well, Katie, bar the door. MSNBC:
SANDERS: And it looks like somebody's ninth birthday party there.
MITCHELL: Let's make sure we don't see the children. Let's not show the child, Kerry. Let's cut away from that.
SANDERS:I'm sorry Andrea, this is kind of unfolding live as we're doing it so I'm not sure what the next picture's gonna be until I pull it out.
BOB: There is news in its finished form, in print and broadcast. There is news in process -- live press conferences -- where the public gets to see the press at work, and is sometimes appalled at the artlessness of it all. The sausage making, they call it, which is sometimes unappetizing but usually yields a palatable product.
Then there was Redlands, a nauseating grind of current-events viscera that would never become a sausage. The process itself was the product and it was disgusting.
But, as the joke goes, the portions are so big! The info-looting at 53 North Center fed not only the bottomless cable news appetite for details, but also the viewer’s unbounded curiosity.
I asked a woman named Virginia Smith, who set up a prayer station outside the San Bernardino shooting site, about media consumption in what she called the fallen world:
BOB: Did you personally feel a little dirty at your desire to see the belongings and the ephemera of the life of these killers?
SMITH: Yes. I - I felt it was not gonna be the best thing for me to be viewing and just uh, no, it was not, it was not the best thing for me to be viewing. TRACK 7 - cut 3
BOB: So exactly what was this episode an apotheosis of? An overheated media marketplace, or merely nature in all its simplicity and brutality? Was scavenger really the right analogy?
Patricia Johnson is a professor of microbiology at UCLA. I asked her if the press weren’t feeding greedily on the Redlands photo op as part of a larger ecosystem, one that ultimately feeds the primal appetites of the audience.
JOHNSON: Oh absolutely, absolutely. Of course they were. But that’s what they do.
BOB: What do you do for a living? What’s your speciality?
JOHNSON: I do primary biomedical and basic research in parasitology.
BOB: So, would it be fair to say that you know a parasite when you see one?
BOB: So, it’s official. Parasites. cable news, certainly. But also, us.