Systems get gamed. That’s what happens. When a given system becomes predictable enough, exploitative parties swoop in and game it.
I lived in L.A. for 14 years. As a matter of course, by the thousands, new aspiring artists were moving in each month. It never stopped or slowed down, to my awareness. As a result, in addition to the prominent film and TV industries, shadow industries existed. Shady people charged money, unlawfully, to work as other people’s talent agents. Those “agents” never got people jobs; they just took the money and ran. Then new aspiring artists would move in, and the non-agents would appear again from the shadows, ready to take their cash. The prospective “client” (i.e., victim) pool was not only stable, but overflowing. The game could be interrupted at times by law enforcement, but it never fully stopped.
Observe something leagues more serious: mass shootings. Mass shooters vary widely in terms of motive (if not in terms of sex), but they all operate within an identical, predictable system, as far as the media goes. It goes like so:
The shooter acts. The media reacts. The story goes global, or at least national. The shooter, whether alive or dead, is famous. The media, in its reaction, ensures the fame.
In recent days, this fame is thinning. Reason being, there are too many shooters to keep track of. We hear their names, then forget them, as we’re soon hearing new names. The string, the pattern is more prominent now than any given shooting event — a harsh recent fact of life.
More harsh facts abound: The mass media, financially dependent on the dissemination of fear, stands to profit severely when mass shootings occur. The shooting occurs, the story breaks wide, the viewers pour in, the advertisers benefit, and the media benefits in turn. In a sense, then, the media collaborates with the shooters — or, if “collaborates with” is too intimate and unfair a phrase, we can say “aligns to.”
This must end.
I propose that media companies delay the release of mass shooters’ names. The delay period needn’t be standardized across all media companies, but I propose a loose standard of 90 days.
This proposal is sensitive. It amounts to censorship. News organizations have a duty to inform at least and to enlighten at most. To withhold information defies both mandates.
Then again, we are seeing the system being gamed.
The mass shooters, varied in terms of their core motives, are united in terms of desiring attention. They know their actions guarantee it will come, even if they’re not still alive to enjoy it (and they can enjoy imagining the scale and intensity of the attention before they gain it). They are copycats, also, united in their lack of originality, but just the same, they seek infamy: They wish to be included in the catalogue of other mass shooters, and remembered for the depraved, empty lessons that they taught us.
They must be deprived, then, of that infamy.
I am not proposing that their names be withheld permanently. To do so would amount to absolute censorship, something no free society should condone. Yet free speech, even at hundreds of years of age, is a revolutionary idea: Freedom is dangerous. Free speech: unstable. Free speech can wound, disrupt, disturb, dismay, traumatize.
Then again, to release the names of mass shooters is not inconsistent with media organizations’ very job and function. Even if the shooter has been apprehended or brought down, and thus poses no remaining threat to the public, the public has a right to know who he (always he) is/was, as well as other information about him. The public likewise has the freedom to do with that information whatever it may please: We can be educated, or moved, or neutral, or fascinated. It’s up to us. Such is what a free society looks like.
Yet when that freedom’s being gamed, in perpetuity, across decades, in the stark name of violence, media organizations have an opportunity to stem that violence, an act which rises to a higher good than keeping the public informed. By installing a 90-day (or similar) delay on the release of shooters’ names, media companies stand a chance at curbing shooters’ impulsiveness — and, let’s face it, their addiction…
In the present age, many of us are addicted to our phones and social media apps. We seek a nonstop stream of stimulation; interacting with our devices and the systems within them keeps our brains producing dopamine, the pleasure chemical. Oftentimes, the interaction hinges on pursuing attention. The mass shooter, in search of extreme attention, is arguably seeking the utmost, outermost dopamine kick: the high to end all highs.
But if he knew that his name wouldn’t be released right away, he might feel dampened by the theoretical postponement of pleasure. He seeks to kill, yes, but he wouldn’t seek to do so in such a grand, public manner if he didn’t also seek the spectacle surrounding.
A spectacle with a built-in delay in gratification ceases to be an outright spectacle, for it falls subject to a spirit of temperance and patience, contemplation and consideration. Moreover, if as an additional practice, media companies highlighted the victims’ names while delaying the release of the killers’ names, the killers would have the indignity of becoming supporting players in their own dramas.
Withhold mass shooters’ names, then, for a while. The idea may not succeed, but it’s worth a try.