Spinning, Lying and Distorting History:  U.S. Media’s Response to the Virginia Tech Tragedy

By Liam O’Donoghue

According to syndicated radio talk show host Rusty Humphries, Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui is “frying in hell.” “I just wish he were alive,” Humphries added dryly, “so we could put him to death.”

Another ultra-right wing radio host, Michael Savage, spewed bizarre conspiracy theories stemming from the report that Seung-Hui had scrawled the words “Ismail Ax” on his arm.  Savage also demanded information related to two other “men of color” who were photographed being handcuffed by police during the raid on Norris Hall.  Somehow, he predictably managed to blame Islam.

Comedian/radio host Dennis Miller summed it up by declaring that Seung-Hui “is pure evil.” Despite the simplicity of this analysis, he repeated the word “evil” at least a dozen times during a 5-minute segment on Tuesday. He wrapped up by comparing the 23-year-old who gunned down 32 students on a college campus to Iranian President Ahmadenajad and noted that the War on Terror has just begun.

In the wake of this tragedy, the rest of the right wing media echo chamber has elevated two questions to the forefront of their agenda during this time of national soul-searching:  “Should there be stricter regulations about allowing “foreign” students into American universities?” and “How can we get more guns into schools?”

The second question is based on the logic that there won’t be any more school massacres if professors, teachers, and licensed gun owners are encouraged, possibly even required, to pack heaters in class.

In fairness to the right, conservative commentators weren’t the only ones extrapolating wide-ranging, ideologically-based solutions from the Virginia Tech killings. Scientologists blamed mental health industry and lefties blamed lax gun control laws.  But blaming talking heads for exploiting a tragedy to espouse their views is like a soccer match tied at zero: pointless.

While the views of the overtly partisan, reactionary media are certainly troublesome, they are mostly just serving up the slop that their audiences want to hear.  The shrieking hyperbole of the “objective” media has a much more insidious effect on the collective consciousness of the “mainstream news” consumer.

Nearly every major media outlet distorted reality and ignored history in their coverage of the Virginia Tech slayings.

From the New York Times on down, the articles proclaimed the killing spree on Monday to be the “worst shooting rampage in American history.” A few common variations: “the worst gun rampage in U.S. history,” “worst U.S. shooting ever,” and “the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.” I’m not taking these phrases out of context.  These sensational descriptions were not followed by qualifiers, such as “on a school campus” or “by a single shooter.”

The most recent and clear contradiction to this attention-grabbing claim that one disturbed young man carried out the “worst shooting rampage in American history” is the Attica Prison massacre of 1971.  Inmates captured guards and took over the prison after repeated complaints about their inhumane living conditions (which included one bucket of water per week as a “shower” and one roll of toilet paper per month) were ignored.  In a botched hostage rescue, New York State Troopers shot 29 prisoners and 11 hostages to death. In 2004, New York State finally settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the victims’ families for $12 million.

The Wounded Knee massacre of more than 300 Dakota Sioux men, women and children on December 29, 1890 by the rifles of the U.S. Cavalry apparently escaped the memories of the editors at virtually every major U.S. newspaper on Tuesday as well, because I don’t think it’s feasibly accurate to describe that slaughter as anything less than a “shooting rampage.”

The USA Today must have also forgotten about the roughly half-dozen wars fought on U.S. soil when they described Virginia Tech as “the scene of the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history.”

I’m not trying to belittle the horrible tragedy in Virginia.  However, when the media is blatantly recrafting history to create an uber-villain out of a single, mentally ill individual so they can grab more eyeballs, it’s not an issue of taste.  It’s an issue of truth.

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