Hard News for Hard Times

Even as a sniper has wreaked mass havoc around Washington and Richmond, Va., there's a way in which, mediawise, this string of murders has produced the opposite of havoc. Fear is the great clarifier, and a story like this has a way of concentrating the news consumer's mind.

When the first thought in your head every morning is, "Has there been another shooting?" there's no question what kind of news you need: facts. And when there are no facts to be had, or very few—as has been the case distressingly often these last few weeks—nothing is required beyond a brief statement to that effect. Period. No filler, no banter, no sanctimony, no poetry, no speculation, and please, please, please, no off-the-cuff opinion—except from the handful of non-journalists whose opinions actually matter, i.e., police and elected officials.

Every news consumer with a pulse knows the feeling I'm describing—that visceral craving for simple, unadorned information. But I don't think it's dawned on some media people how widespread this stark view of the news has become in the nearly 14 months since the terrorist attacks of September 11, or how profoundly it's affected the way Americans think about the media. The news values of the 1990s—personality, ideology, scandal for scandal's sake—are completely out of sync with the world of right now. And when news outlets embrace those old values, as most still do at least part of the time, they become irrelevant.

If you happened to turn on Fox News this past Monday evening, when The Big Story With John Gibson was on, you would have thought you were flashing back to 1997, except that instead of Monica, the gasbagging was about the sniper. There had been no killings for a couple of days (and there wouldn't be another until the next morning), and the only news was a note possibly left by the shooter at the crime scene, exact contents then unknown. But in the cable world, filling empty airtime is like riding a bicycle: You never forget how. At one point, Gibson introduced Clancy McKenzie, identified as "a professor at Capital University in Washington." The discussion went like this:

Gibson: So, Dr. McKenzie, before we talk to you about what you think this person—what may be motivating this person, what do you make of these communications?

McKenzie: I'm not certain what to make of the communications, but I do have an opinion about what has happened recently to cause this person to snap. We know that this killer has not been shooting people for the last 40 years. Something recently has caused him to snap, and usually, 95 times out of 100, it will be a separation from some important person, most likely a lady friend, and probably within a couple of months of the event occurring.

Gibson asked him to clarify.

McKenzie: What happens is, rage is proportionate to helplessness. No one is as helpless as a little baby when the mother's not there. This is identical to the Unabomber. When he was 9 months old, he was hospitalized and separated from the mother, producing enormous rage. Then, 40 years later, a lady friend left him and he snaps, and when he snapped, he went back to the rage and indiscriminately sent bombs everywhere."

There was a time when this sort of thing was infuriating. Remember? Now it's just pathetic, and the only mature response is the modern equivalent of averting one's eyes: click.

And cable doesn't have a monopoly. On October 16, The New York Times ran a curious piece looking at different theories about what sort of person the sniper might be. Here's a quote: "I don't see this guy as wimpy," said Candice DeLong, a former FBI profiler who worked on the Unabomber case. "I see him all into this stealth ninja stuff, walking around with a swagger, used to bossing people around, maybe a fireman or construction worker. He's out to prove to somebody—and they know who they are—that he's the best damn sniper in the world."

Now that arrests have been made, some of the guesses we've heard may turn out to be accurate. But dumb luck doesn't retrospectively turn bilge into wisdom.

The good news is, this sort of thing doesn't really matter anymore. Too much is at stake. People are dying. And nobody has time for it. There has been some grousing lately that as 9/11 recedes into the past, the media have returned to their old ways. But if you look carefully, the retrogressions are relatively few and are exceptions to the rule. The news has shed many of its old frivolities. Like the world, it has grown up.

"We've moved on from fin de siecle media," says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington think tank. "When your personal fate seems tied more to the fate of your community and society and world, you look at the news more seriously. I think we lived through a period when we had the luxury of soft news because we didn't pay a price for avoiding hard news. And I do think that that is changing.... The Rorschach-test responses for media are no longer Monica and Chandra."

If anything epitomizes the new world of news, it's the bare-bones wire story. Perusing the latest sniper news on the Google search engine early this week, I came across a Voice of America story with this bold sentence: "No information that could explain the sniper's motive has been made public." It was the truest thing I heard all day.