July 21, 2012

James Holmes’ Father Goes To Colorado, and Reflections on TV News, TMZ, and Kids Doing Journalism

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James Holmes, the man accused of shooting dozens of people at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, will get a visit from his father.

From where did I get this news? TMZ.

Yes, that TMZ. Weird Al did a song parody of Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ called ‘TMZ’ on his recent album Alpocalypse. Whenever I hear “TMZ”, I think of that song. (This is why there’s a Weird Al video at the top of this post.) I certainly don’t think “trenchant news reporting”. So I was surprised to find that this particular TMZ broadcast did a nice job of reporting on the Colorado shooting.

Here are some of my thoughts about the awful event in Colorado, how it was covered in the media, and kids practicing the ancient art of journalism from their bedrooms. 

I haven’t watched any television reports about the Colorado shooting. Part of this is because I typically don’t turn on the TV when things like this happen. Not because I’m not interested, just because it’s not what I do. 9/11 is an obvious exception, as was the blackout a few years later, although in that case we turned on the radio instead of the television because there was no electricity.

But even in the days following 9/11/01, I found myself flipping to non-news channels whenever I happened to be alone in the living room. (My apartment became a gathering place for friends and family after the Towers fell. I’ll tell you that story one of these days.) When people came back from getting a snack or some other room-leaving endeavor, I would quickly switch back to CNN, NY1 or whatever newsy channel had been chosen at the moment. There’s one time in particular when I changed the channel and while I can’t remember what news channel we were watching, I clearly recall catching a few minutes of the first X-Men film.

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A superhero movie. Shocking, I know. And as a YouTube commenter points out, “Holy crap, 2000 was a long time ago.” But I digress.

The reason I can clearly recall what movie I saw and can’t think of the news channel we were watching is because during a major news event a lot of the coverage starts to blur together for me. This is particularly true when the event has moved beyond “breaking news” status. With several 24 hour channels talking about the same topic, it’s tough to find anything new to say. Part of the reason for this is that there isn’t always going to be anything new for the news channels to tell us.

Waiting a day helps. Then it’s all new to you. That was how it worked for me this time.

This morning I began by reading the Wall Street Journal’s version of the event, then the New York Times’. Both had a point of view, with the Times skewing more towards gun control and the Journal not so much. (Note: while I don’t buy into the whole “liberal media” idea, this isn’t the place to go into that. Wait for my book.)

Neither article satisfied me entirely, probably because I was reading them in print and much had happened since these stories had been filed. I prefer reading the New York Times on my iPad, and in this case that was a big help because I was able to sample the excellent video report that went with the article. (It really is like a book Harry Potter would read. We live in interesting times.) Included in that video was footage someone who was at the Aurora movie theater had shot filmed and uploaded to YouTube immediately following the shooting. Watching this grainy, shaky video is a very strange experience. I’ll post it here but it’s a bit upsetting so you should skip it if you want to. (If you want more “citizen journalism”, go to MyFoxDC.com, where they have links to an audio recording of the local police scanner traffic while everything was happening, as well as photos one of the victims took of his own bullet wound. They warn you there, I’ll warn you here, it’s not pretty, although I have to admit that it isn’t as graphic as I thought it would be. Which does not mean I think you need to see it. If you have any doubts, just don’t look.)

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After reading the Times’ story, I sampled some opinion pieces. Roger Ebert did a good job of making his point without going over the top, and I was surprised to find that Gail Collins did as well. Ms. Collins is my favorite columnist at the moment, in part because she’s usually quite funny. I wasn’t sure that she would find the right tone with this topic, but in my opinion she did. I may try to read more opinions later, once some time has passed and there’s less screaming about topics like taking kids to midnight movies.

While I admit that this is not the most important aspect of the shooting story, I was still curious about the YouTube footage and the citizen journalism angle. Yesterday I read a piece from GigaOm via PaidContent about the “crowdsourcing” of news. Information about the shooting broke via what are technically not news outlets — Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit, the latter coming as a surprise to me. Reddit is where one of the victims posted photos of his bullet wound, and also where an 18-year-old named Morgan Jones created a timeline of the shooting out of social media postings and (I think) traditional media reports he found online. Jones kept updating his Reddit entries as events unfolded. Why did he do this? Because he was home and felt like it. In an interview with Buzzfeed, he said, “It feels like I’m helping out people who need to know this stuff.”

This is what newspeople do, right? Journalism is in part storytelling. Reading Buzzfeed’s interview, I was reminded of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series ‘The Newsroom’. The way the staff leaps into action when a story breaks, looking for sources or any tidbit of information that will keep viewers informed. A recent episode dealt with the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, so the parallel was even easier for my mind to make.

I imagined Morgan Jones as a one-man newsroom. What Jones did is journalism, right? What else should we call it? I admit I’m leery of pouncing on trends — Social Media Will Save Us All! — but this time I bought in. I like the idea of an 18-year-old doing some journalism while sitting at home in front of his computer for the same reason I liked it when a 15-year-old tricked Apple. Smart kids rock.

Back to TMZ. I arrived at their site while searching for some piece of Colorado shooting news that I hadn’t found in the Times or Journal stories. Because they opened their TMZ Live broadcast with the story about James Holmes’ father arriving in Colorado so he could help the police talk to his son (that was the reason TMZ offered), they had my attention. I figured I would write a quick blog post on DaddyTips about the Holmes’ dad. I wound up watching the entire 45 minute video and writing this particular post, which is now well over 1,000 words.

Watching TMZ’s remarkably sober report about the shooting also reminded me of Sorkin’s show. The host, Harvey Levin, is not a traditional anchor, at least not the type of anchor that Sorkin would consider traditional. He isn’t wearing a tie. He’s standing in front of a desk rather than sitting behind it. He has a co-anchor who contributes to the conversation at times, although Levin is clearly in charge.

The part that reminded me of ‘Newsroom’ was when they cut to the young staff members who are often featured on the daily TMZ TV show. (Which I’ve never watched more than a minute or two of, and what I’ve seen is only because it’s on right before ‘The Simpsons’.) This time the young people were sitting at their desks and appeared to be working on different aspects of the story, just like they do on ‘The Newsroom’ and maybe even the way they do at real-life news organizations.

Levin is quite good at something that Howard Stern perfected, which is to make the backroom people part of the show. In this case, we were able to hear directly from the staff what they were working on, and also what they thought about what they were working on. Levin offered opinions here and there as well, doing a nice job of making his point about there being too many guns in the world without turning the show into a soapbox. One of the staffers disagreed about the need for more gun control, and was allowed to make his point without being chastised. I’m not saying it was a deep and detailed debate. But it was calm, informative, and found a balance between news and opinion that many other shows have a lot of trouble with. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised. Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale would be proud.

Or maybe not. TMZ is a gossip show, after all. And you don’t get your news from gossip mongers. Just like you don’t get your news from 18-year-olds sitting in their bedrooms posting stuff on Reddit. Except when you do.

Related links:

On my radio show recently, I talked about Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series ‘The Newsroom’.

Listen to internet radio with Brett Singer on Blog Talk Radio

Click here to listen if the embed doesn’t work.

TMZ Live: James Holmes — Portrait of the ‘Batman’ Shooter | TMZ.com

James Holmes’ Father Arrives in Colorado | TMZ.com

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