Monday, January 07, 2013

Shame in Westchester (Cont'd)

The media love a familiar Narrative, and are developing one in the plight of the employees at the Gannett-owned Journal News newspaper in Westchester County, N.Y.  You know, the newspaper that decided it needed to "shame" its neighbors who happened to hold legal handgun permits and so published a story with an online searchable database showing the names and home addresses of about 40,000 handgun-permit owners in Westchester and Rockland counties. 

That Narrative seems to be: Brave Newspaper Under Siege. And yes, the Journal News is kind of under siege now for publishing public information.

But as I have argued, publishing it was a cheap stunt -- cheap in every sense of the word. To me, it was clearly motivated by a misguided (misguided in every sense of the word) impulse to gain marketing points by shaming legal handgun-permit owners, and directly pandering to the waves of revulsion about guns that followed the horrific massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Connecticut on Dec. 14.

The newspaper has exhibited no sign that it is truly interested in reporting on genuine gun issues, such as the proliferation of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, or the disturbing gun culture, like the gun culture that included the Connecticut homicidal maniac's gun-nut mother (whom he also killed), who encouraged his interest in guns and from whom the murderer obtained the assault rifle that he used in the massacre. Actual reporting takes effort and costs money, you see.

Instead, in its timing, the newspaper sanctimoniously sought to implicitly tie legal handgun-permit holders to the Connecticut horror and to all too many similar horrors. The newspaper's pious position was that providing the searchable database was a matter of serving public safety. It clearly was no such thing. It was an impulse to shame.

To me, the immediate ramification caused by this stunt was that it helped to change the public conversation -- from welcome outrage over the gun culture and the voracious marketing of assault weapons, to the affront to the rights of legal handgun-permit holders and the concurrent gross invasion of their privacy. As a few sensible critics in the media pointed out, just because you can publish something doesn't mean you should.

But sure enough, the media narrative now seems to have settled comfortably on the sharp and sometimes ugly negative reaction to the newspaper's stunt. That reaction -- with threats being made to the newspaper's employees -- came from  the usual suspects in the gun-nut culture. But let's not overlook the fact that there was also sharply negative reaction from progressive-minded citizens who thought, as I do, that the newspaper had engaged in a spectacle of grossly bad journalism, for the worst of reasons: marketing and scolding (as misguided as that turned out to be for the publisher and editors).

So because the gun-nut culture now has the newspaper in its rhetorical sights (while the newspaper has hired ... um... armed guards in reaction), we now are encouraged to shift our sympathies to a perhaps beleaguered Journal News, bastion of journalistic courage?

Well yes, I do sympathize, but not with the courage part.  Stirring up the gun nuts can be a very clarifying learning experience, and let's hope the Journal News does what any responsible news organization should do now -- which is, reporting out the story honestly and thoroughly. And yes, alas, they need to be careful, because the gun nuts are armed and dangerous when roused to action.

This cheap stunt had unfortunate consequences, but among them was a derailing of the gun-control issue and a reinvigorating of the gun-nut lobby, which always traffics in the politics of grievance and paranoia -- right at the time when we had the bastards on the run.

Here via New York Magazine is a sensible editorial on the damage that publishing the permit-holder database arguably did to the growing gun-control movement -- here.


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