Op-ed: Perverse self-congratulation

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, September 1, 2015 1:15pm
  • Opinion

I’m a little bit ashamed of myself, because when the insane shooting massacre of an on-air news team in Roanoke, Virginia, gripped us in horror, it took just a short period of time before my thoughts switched from concern for those who were slaughtered and their shattered loved ones, to myself, as someone who has done thousands of live shots during my TV news career.

Worse, I said so publicly, on social media. I was wearing the tragedy as a perverted badge of honor, and I was hardly alone. It wasn’t long before so many of us were Facebooking and Twittering as fast as our fingers could type about the dangers we bravely face as we go about valiantly answering our calling to inform the world. Yes, that is a bit sarcastic, although I must hasten to say that I’m proud of what we do in television journalism, or at least of some of it.

We can perform an essential service; at our best, we show our fellow citizens what’s taking place, the good but more often the bad, as it’s happening. It helps explain why some police bad apples — those who don’t want people to know how they’re misbehaving — often turn on us, as do other lawbreakers. We also can be a magnet for nutcases. But we go through this stuff largely because it’s exciting work, it beats growing up and, frankly, because there’s nothing like the rush of being part of TV showbiz.

It didn’t take long, though, before I became embarrassed by my sanctimony, and that of my television brethren and sistren. What this really was about was self-aggrandizement. As in: “Look at what a hero I am. Forget the story, it’s all about me.” This will not endear me to my colleagues, but usually it’s not about us. In this case, it was about two more of the thousands of people in our country who are gunned down. It was about our inability and even unwillingness to do anything about this deadly national disgrace. Granted this latest case was particularly heinous because of the shocking way it happened, but it’s still just one more grotesque murderous act by a psychopathic “powder keg,” as he put it. Our story is about society’s failings and the suffering that results. It’s not about any rigors that we go through to report it.

It is also about social media where our narrative plays out in this day and time. Because of technology, everyone has access to everyone else. That, of course, included the savage killer who forced us to share his homicidal fantasies. But Facebook and Twitter also became the outlets where those who were closest to the victims and most personally shattered turned immediately to share the agony over their loss. We now have intimate mass media, where expressing the deepest feelings is nearly mandatory. Somehow, the young man who lost his beloved fiancee found the strength to tell us all about his pain and explain his loss. It is wonderfully cathartic that there is a mechanism to do that, but the dark side is that it’s also a venue where the irrationally angry maniac can almost force us to bear witness to his depravity.

I’m not one of those who believes that the opportunity for deadly exhibitionism motivates such monstrous acts. Long before social media we had workplace violence. And today, there are numbingly constant shooting deaths in a society that is overrun with deadly weapons and people who are willing to use them to settle the most petty grievances.

In truth, for many, precious life is cheap. The reasons why are worth exploring by those of us privileged to be journalists. What isn’t worth much of our time is self-promotion about any dangers we might encounter. Those in other professions routinely face more. Ours is really not worth sharing.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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