The hate-filled manifesto of 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people and injured 13 others in a killing spree that rocked the college town of Isla Vista, Calif., before committing suicide, has sparked a national conversation about the influence of sex and misogyny in American culture.
Over the weekend, thousands of people took to Twitter with the hashtag #YesAllWomen to draw attention to the real struggle against sexism and misogyny that American women face daily, from overt threats of violence to passive, casual sexism. "What happened in Santa Barbara is nothing less than a hate crime, and yet mainstream news outlets are distilling the issue to 'mental illness' and 'premeditated mass murder,'" wrote PolicyMic's Elizabeth Plank. "Although we should be shocked by Elliot Rodger's actions, we should not be surprised. In fact, most school shootings share chillingly similar characteristics. It's time we stop treating these incidents as anomalies and start recognizing the deep societal issues at play."
In looking for the causes of these deep societal issues, some critics have turned an eye toward the role that the mass media — television, movies, magazines etc. — plays in perpetuating the harmful pathologies that drive people like Rodger to violence. Blood-soaked, bullet-laden movies are favorite targets of hand-wringing armchair sociologists. But in an article published in the Washington Post on Sunday, film critic Ann Hornaday took aim at the frat comedies of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, suggesting that their movies influenced Rodger's bloody rampage. "How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like Neighbors and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of 'sex and fun and pleasure'?" wrote Hornaday. "How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, 'It's not fair'?"
Apatow and Rogen didn't appreciate this criticism. Rogen responded to Hornday with a series of tweets attacking her for insinuating that he was somehow responsible for Rodger's killing spree.
The debate about the link between popular culture and the social norms that permeates society isn't new. Observors of the Columbine High School massacre were quick to link the shooting to video games, the music of Marilyn Manson and the narratives at play in Rodger's sick fantasy world including retributive violence and the meme of the gentleman-nerd-who-loves-the-hot-girl-who-actually-dates-an-asshole-joke. Rogen is right to be put off by this charge, but he's missing Hornday's point. ThinkProgress' Jessica Goldstein sums it up nicely:
People in movies can't have it both ways: either pop culture is totally irrelevant, and therefore the work they do is totally irrelevant, or pop culture does matter, which means they will sometimes have to reckon with the fact that their work can be a force for evil as well as good. If you want people to see Dallas Buyer's Club and leave with greater empathy for the challenges the LGBT community faces, you have to be prepared that people will see darker movies and leave with darker thoughts, and that even—especially—seemingly innocuous movies can and do have a powerful influence over the way we think, feel, communicate and behave.
Apatow's response, however, focused less on Hornaday and more on the state of the media:
This, like Rogen's response, is something of a deflection. But there's some truth in Apatow's statement.
The American media has always been biased towards the sensational, violent and salacious. There's a reason "if it bleeds, it leads" is a common mantra, if tongue-in-cheek, in broadcast newsrooms throughout the country. Psychology Today's Deborah Serani examined the logic of fear-based media in 2011 with a particular eye to broadcast media: "Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer's attention. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story," writes Serani. "If a teaser asks, 'What's in your tap water that YOU need to know about?' a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety."
The psychology of modern media as outlined by Serani has more to do with presentation and packaging than the actual content of a story. You can see this logic afoot in headlines designed to provoke an emotional response or confirm a sense of reader identity. This trend is nothing new; it has been integral to the business of mass media for decades. The idea of "clickbait" headlines (like 'Before We Use Certain Words, We Should All Look At These Pictures. They Might Make Us Think Twice') are only the latest manifestation of selling ideas to draw people into the content.
But it's actually between the rise of cable news (say, with CNN in the early 1990s) and the era of "social news" (with the Huffington Post in the mid-2000s) that we see the structural changes at the heart of Apatow's rebuttal. The Internet is the most revolutionary form of mass communication and has turned the media ecosystem on its head. Analysis and interpretation are plentiful and free, while the capacity for gathering facts has declined tremendously. "Sensibility is cheap," my former Bloomberg colleague Edmund Lee is fond of saying, "But reporting is expensive."
What does this have to do with Judd Apatow and Elliot Rodger? Judd Apatow's line about "profit centers" highlights a critical feature of the modern news ecosystem: We, as journalists, live and die in the attention economy, where thee lifespan of any given article is nasty, brutish, and short. For major breaking news stories, especially those which have some level of violent drama that are sure to capture the attention of consumers, the rush to dominate the coverage yields horrible, strategic misteps. CNN, from their flawed coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings to their almost comical round-the-clock coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, is a favorite whipping by for media observers, but digital-only outlets are guilty of this too (especially those who jeer at horrible TV coverage while tweeting television screencaps until their fingers bleed).
Apatow's critique of "media profit centers" is a good one, if wrongheaded: Eyeballs drive the nature of news coverage, whether they're pointing at CNN on your television set or Gawker on your smartphone. In my short time in the news industry, I've worked for an alt weekly, a magazine, a wire service, a television network and a startup, all staffed with extremely talented and ethically sound journalists. But the anxiety of traffic is omnipresent, even subsconsciously. To pretend otherwise is to pretend that economics doesn't exist.
Simply put: The urgency of the news and the cascade of attention yields a garbled, soupy mess of terrible, poorly-formed garbage masquerading as "analysis" or "debate." This is what yields the inappropriate, the off-kilter, and the nonsensical analyses that Apatow rails against, like that of the ridiculous Fox News panelist who suggested that 'homosexual impulses' were behind Rodger's spree. The presence of nouns and verbs does not constitute writing. The presence of writing does not necessarily constitute good ideas. You're not incisive, or intelligent, or privy to some secret of human nature: You just have Internet access and something to type on. Media outlets cover the mundane, the useless and the invaluable because that's what people click on. There's a hunger for human beings to know more, to understand what's happening in the world, and to feel smarter about themselves and society. When that desire is focused on a singular, horrific news event, media outlets don't become source of information. They become often mirrors for what people want to hear.
This isn't inherently bad. The Internet has created a powerful marketplace for ideas, a clearinghouse of interpretation and analysis that was once dominated by corporations controlling the means of cultural production. But the traffic impulse is a dangerous draw to anyone focusing on making sense of madness. It's easy to blame structural causes for the decline in quality news — although not inaccurate, since Facebook's phantom algorithms are quickly becoming a dominant source of news for better or for worse — but the nature of modern publishing means it's too easy to jam a horrifying event into a pre-existing template of how the world works and call it "analysis."
Any writer should move thoughtfully and with purpose, lest movements like #YesAllWomen simply become easy hooks for traffic and not the site of careful and considered reflection.
This clip from English satirist Charlie Brooker sums things up a bit more succinctly: