Media Fascination Provides Outlaws Mass Forum

An unhealthy side effect of covering TV too long is beginning to think like executives and producers. So as reports began dribbling out about the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, it was hard not to mutter somewhat guiltily, “Two guys age 19 and 26 — right in the sweet spot of the key demo. Wonder who’s going to play them in the movie.”

When it comes to processing such events through the prism of entertainment, however, this impulse is hardly unusual. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal characterized the manhunt for the suspects as “a dragnet of cinematic propositions,” and veteran showbiz exec Jeff Sagansky publicly mused about the story’s movie possibilities while delivering the keynote address at last week’s Independent Film & Television Alliance conference.

During the last several days, a more unsettling aspect of this tendency has also emerged — not stoking imitative behavior, as is often suggested in the context of media violence, but rather reinforcing perceptions those harboring a grievance against society who pursue violent remedies are rewarded with a massive airing of their views. As part of the inevitable search to ascertain what motivated them, they receive what is, for many, the ultimate goal: A mass forum.

This is, of course, hardly a new impulse, including the longstanding fascination with villainy and the urge to romanticize outlaws. As proof one can start by sifting through the numerous movies about two other murderous brothers, Frank and Jesse James, with the latter having been played by top-line leading men ranging from Tyrone Power to Brad Pitt.

What has changed is the saturation coverage unleashed by the modern media age. Over the weekend, one was hard pressed to watch CNN for more than a few minutes without hearing the names of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as reporters and pundits sought to decipher the how and why of their alleged actions.

For most people, admittedly, being killed or incarcerated is hardly a fair tradeoff in exchange for suddenly becoming a household name. Yet in the same way being paralyzed by fear means “The terrorists have won,” being showered in such wall-to-wall coverage, endless speculation and, yes, an inevitable movie version of one’s plot is, indeed, its own kind of victory.

Consider, too, Christopher Dorner, the ex-LAPD officer who embarked on an alleged killing spree earlier this year, detailing his motives in a lengthy online manifesto. As evidence of how intoxicating such material is to the media, the Dorner story wound up bumping into and in some instances eclipsing coverage of President Obama’s State of the Union address — reflecting how “Casablanca” got it wrong: In today’s TV news, the problems of a few little people are frequently much easier to sell, and more relatable, than those of a great big confusing world.

Small wonder Dorner has achieved a kind of cult-hero status in certain quarters. Hey, it’s like “The Negotiator,” just without the happy ending.

The interest in antiheroes is also well represented by a current strain of fictionalized drama (as noted in a recent column) that’s worth considering in this regard — namely, an outbreak of series that push bad guys front and center. They range from “Bates Motel” (which seeks to present and explain “Psycho’s” Norman Bates in his pre-serial-killer days) to “The Following” (where anarchic killers have all the fun and steamy sex) to “Hannibal” (in which Dr. Lecter might be creepy, but he sure knows how to elegantly entertain).

Viewed in a vacuum, there’s nothing really new to see here. But it’s all part of a larger media culture that subtly teaches us anything goes when it comes to the pursuit of attention, and where the gap between fame and notoriety has clearly narrowed.

“The whole world is watching,” the serial-killing cult leader, played with suave charm by James Purefoy, told his entranced followers on the latest installment of “The Following.” “Today’s the day our story will finally be heard.”

It’s fiction, obviously, but that doesn’t mean others haven’t picked up on the same lessons the Fox show’s writers have identified. And the truth is, when such a mentality escapes into the real world, there’s no telling where that might lead.

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