December 17, 2012

(Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images)

The Newtown, Conn., massacre is prompting all kinds of discussions: Should we change the way we regulate guns? Are we plowing enough resources into the screening and care of the mentally ill? Should schools become armed fortresses?

And, of course, what can we do about our irresponsible news media?

On TheWeek.com, conservative commentator Matt K. Lewis makes an argument titled “The media should be ashamed of its Connecticut coverage.” What follows is a see-what-sticks inventory of missteps by news organizations covering the horrible events of Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School — minus key details.

In hammering media outlets for misreporting the name of the shooter, for instance, Lewis doesn’t bother to mention that the bad information came originally from law-enforcement authorities. Any news outlet that bungles a fact must indeed take ownership of the oversight. Yet the circumstances here don’t quite constitute a felony indictment of the media.

And then! “As if those cases of egregiously mistaken identity weren’t enough, producers and reporters began trolling Twitter, seeking to proposition friends and relatives of the victims for an interview.”

The disgrace! Journalists are seeking interviews. Next we’ll take to criticizing track stars for running; musicians for tuning their violins; cooks for tasting.

On another point of attack, Lewis has fine company. “[O]thers staked out the young survivors, and then proceeded to conduct on-air interviews with these young children. This was unseemly and superfluous.” Approaching kids for interviews in times of trauma is dicey territory, for sure: When in doubt, back off. That said, the moralizing, patronizing finger-waggers forget that children are people too — people who sometimes want their voices heard. Let them and their parents make that call.

Mistaken identity plus interviewing people — that’s the case against the media at Newtown, at least in Lewis’s treatment.”It’s about being first, beating other media outlets, and making a name for themselves. It’s a ghoulish mentality that stokes controversy and violence,” writes Lewis. His argument falls just four or five bona fide points short of convincing.

Newtown is a story about the unfathomable: What compelled one to go off, to turn into a horror scene an elementary school — one of the few places whose inviolability and purity is a given, a constant? Reporters are now scrambling to answer that question, as well they should. They’re also piecing together stories on the victims, a process that’ll ensure those victims are remembered.

That’s not a lot for a press critic to play with. Consider the contrast with other recent stories: This year’s presidential election — a media angle at every rally. Benghazi — a towering story about the media. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s future — nothing but a media story.

Newtown — a story about people and tragedy. Not about the media.

At least not yet. As the New York Times reports, there are some concerns among Newtown residents about media intrusion and privacy, as there always are in these circumstances. Police officers have been assigned to keep “unwelcome visitors” away from the families of the victims, according to the Times.

It’s all a crass pursuit, suggests Lewis:

Come to think of it, the media is guilty of doing what they criticize big business of — putting money (in this case, ratings, newsstand sales, and web traffic) ahead of humanity and decency. Just as greedy businessmen put profit and personal gain ahead of ethics, so too do our media outlets.

Wonder where Lewis derives his expertise on the intersection between media and profits? Perhaps from the Daily Caller, which features his quick-fire opinion pieces. A section called “Guns and Gear” has a prominent perch on the Caller site.

Just after the shootings, the Caller posted a story in “Guns and Gear” titled “Liberals immediately blame NRA, call for gun control after elementary school shooting.” Can’t imagine how that story could have displeased the section’s sponsors.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.