How about avoiding character assassination?

Jim Redwine

The definition of a “mass shooting” in the United States is a moving target based on who describes an incident. While there is no neutrality on the issue of guns, the non-profit organization, Gun Violence Archive (GVA), defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people, not including the shooter, are killed from gunshots. Applying these criteria, the GVA has published its figures for the period of Jan. 1, 2023 to April 10, 2023 and compared it to the same time for 2014. In 2014 there were 59 incidents of mass shootings in the U.S. and in 2023 there were 146.

While those who announce the statistics may have motives to mischaracterize the figures, the statistics starkly establish an alarming trend upward. In a country of 330 million people where more people commit suicide with guns than commit mass shootings, and more than 30,000 die in vehicle accidents each year, it may appear that mass shootings in America are not out of control. But the tocsin should sound to alert us to a possible greater danger of a change in our national character.

It is not the inanimate objects of firearms that may be our greater concern but the animus we feel for one another. The most significant issue we should concentrate on is not the number of guns in our country nor who can access them, although these are important. What may be in play is, why are we as a people engendering a degree of nihilism in some members of our society that so devalues oneself and others that “death by cop” and the deaths of unknown others is preferable to living?

I own guns, have since I was a boy. We had long guns in the pantry right next to our family’s dining table. There were no locked gun cabinets and no need for one. If I wanted to go hunting, I pulled back the curtain on the pantry, grabbed one of the guns and went hunting. Every boy and man I knew owned or had access to guns. Guns were not a means to achieve attention. We knew approval came from school and work and how we treated others, disapproval too. National attention was not on our radar, but if it had been we knew it would need to come from helping others not indiscriminately murdering them. Our family was like most others and if we ever achieved any news media notoriety it was for some small contribution to local culture. It did not compute for most people that fame and infamy were equally desirable as long as they spelled the names right. So, what happened? What went wrong and how can we fix it?

The news media is not to blame for fostering a climate of “If it bleeds, it leads.” As a newspaper columnist for 33 years, I am a member of the media and I deny responsibility for anyone else’s behavior. I have enough to do being responsible for my own. No, the media is simply following the demands and interests of the American public. Movies, songs, video games and television shows that garner ticket sales and awards for ad nauseam renditions of pornography and senseless violence are the harbingers of what news sources people will pay attention to. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and others are in business. They follow the demographics and those demographics are that what sells is the denigration of our politicians and blood from our citizens. What does not sell is any mention of good character and acts of kindness.

So, what does a disaffected, depressed, detached and marginal person conclude from the media? If one wants to matter, he or she must denigrate others or spill the blood of innocent strangers and themselves. I realize we will not return to the Andy Griffith Show and Walter Cronkite country we transitioned out of when all politics and all news was local. However, we can reevaluate how we report, not comment, on people with whom we disagree or, perhaps, even despise. The facts should be enough. Adjectives as to a politician’s motives should be eschewed. If the object of a news story is wrong, the public can reach that conclusion without some news anchor repeatedly claiming, “That’s a lie!” A lie requires intent and how does the news anchor know one’s intent? It should be sufficient to state the evidence and leave it up to the viewer or reader to decide if it is a lie or a mistake or even a difference of opinion.

A gradual turning away from a culture where, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”, might be a good place to start. Or, if not Shakespeare, how about our mothers’ advice, “If we can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all”?

I get it that this approach might take years to help assuage our epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings. But I ask you, Gentle Reader, do you think the problem will be solved by continuing to vilify everyone we disagree with? Maybe, at least, respectfully hearing out opposing views before we label someone a crook or a liar might pour oil on troubled waters and help reduce our national tendency to assassinate character. Such an approach of just reporting the news may tend to discourage people teetering on the edge from taking up arms and actually assassinating innocent people.