On his Oct. 2 broadcast — one day after Harper-Mercer’s rampage, Cooper made reference to the insistence of Sheriff John Hanlin not to mention the name of the shooter. “A quick reminder, the local sheriff says he will not and will not say the shooter’s name. Neither will we. We’re neither naming him nor showing his photo even as we learned more about who he was, including the fact that he was enrolled in the class where he opened fire,” said Cooper.
Cooper took a different approach broadcast last Thursday, one day after the San Bernardino tragedy, in which Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people. Cooper’s presentation that night included various mentions of Farook’s name, as well as some photographs.
Today the landing page for Cooper’s show features photos of both San Bernardino assailants:
None of this is to say that Cooper himself has engaged in shooter deification. His program has highlighted the plight of the victims, for instance, and the host himself commonly uses “gunman” and “killer” instead of names.
Still: The difference between Oregon and San Bernardino is striking. We asked CNN about it, and got this response.
Things were a bit different in our coverage last week because very early on it was clear this shooting could be an act of terrorism, which is different than the shootings we’ve seen the in past of lone gunman in many cases just looking to kill and for personal notoriety. As an act of terror, there are questions of associates and possible cells, so showing pictures and naming names is important in that regard as it might help law enforcement.So that’s the distinction / why we showed the pictures. And even then we try to be judicious in how often we use the picture and the name. Once the investigation seems to have run its course in these types of circumstances then we stop using picture and name.For instance now that the ringleader of the Paris attacks is dead, Anderson has stopped using his name. The 8th terrorist is still on the loose so we use the name and show his picture.
As per that statement, Cooper’s program on Nov. 30 named and showed the photo of Robert Dear, who faces charges for the post-Thanksgiving attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic that claimed the lives of three people. Regarding that crime, Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the AP, “I think it’s very important for the government to call a terrorist, a terrorist. I think a reluctance to do that is a terrible thing.”
Hold on a second, though: Cooper’s own words on that Nov. 30 broadcast appear to contradict the standard cited by a network spokeswoman. “Investigators now believe the man accused of killing three people at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs was working alone…Today Robert Lewis Dear made his first court appearance from jail via video feed…As you can see, he’s wearing a bulletproof vest. He’s being held without bond. He’s expected to charge with first-degree murder.” If he was working alone, why name him?
This pattern of not naming loners like Harper-Mercer while indeed naming folks with possible terrorism motives aligns with the thinking at Fox News’s “The Kelly File.” As this blog wrote last week, host Megyn Kelly has made a point of suppressing names and photos in some instances — particularly in the Oregon shooting — but hasn’t applied the “policy” in the Planned Parenthood or San Bernardino attacks. The executive producer for Kelly’s show explained the split this way:
“Our policy is the result of several top security experts (not to mention the families of many mass shooting victims such as those in Aurora Colorado) urging us to refrain from naming mass shooters. (See, e.g., Gavin De Becker’s “The Gift of Fear.”) Too often these crimes are driven by a mix of mental illness and a desire for media attention. When we encounter an event where it becomes apparent that the shooter was driven by the desire for infamy, we decline to help. When it is clear there was some other primary motive, such as terrorism or ideology (e.g., the Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado), we typically will name the killer. We recognize that this is not a perfect science. However, given the number of mass killings we have seen in recent years in the United States, and the enormous platform we have as part of the primetime lineup on Fox News Channel, we feel a responsibility to do what we can within reason.”
Both policies appear pocked with infirmities. First off, Cooper’s approach requires a quick-twitch determination as to whether the attack was motivated by terrorism or just a quest for “personal notoriety.” How can any news organization be trusted to make such determinations when authorities themselves are having trouble figuring it out? And as for Kelly’s standard, who’s to say that terrorists themselves don’t exult in infamy?
The two models diverged last June, following the massacre at an historic black church in Charleston, S.C., in which a white loner named Dylann Roof was charged. Cooper explained to his viewers: “Now ordinarily, as you may know, we don’t name shooting suspects or show their pictures on this program,” he said in his June 18 broadcast. “We don’t believe they should get any kind of recognition. But because the investigation of this alleged hate crime, many are also referring to it as an act of domestic terrorism, because it’s ongoing in its early stages, and police are still looking for more information about this person, we are going to show his face and use his name, but sparingly, on the program tonight.”
Kelly, meanwhile, said on the same night, “It is our ‘Kelly File’ policy to refrain from naming or showing the faces of these mass shooters once they have been apprehended. Too often it is infamy they seek and we decline to help. We urge our colleagues in the media both at Fox News and beyond to join us in this effort, especially in a case like this.”
Meanwhile, the folks at “No Notoriety” aren’t observing the loner v. terrorist distinction:
Pity the braintrusts at these top cable-news shows. Not only must they cover press conferences, Twitter, Facebook and reports from sources, but they also must game out motives and other considerations as they try to determine whether to include names and photographs in their broadcasts.