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Missing the big picture after Aurora

Journalism losing knowledge as it downsizes into digital age

The aftermath of the theater killings in Aurora, Colo., brings to mind the classic fable about blind men examining an elephant. Every party, it seems, addresses only that part which they happen to see.

A Wall Street Journal column laid the blame on a sick culture, precipitated by screen violence. A Los Angeles Times columnist oddly singled out movie marketing, and specifically Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight Rises” campaign. The New York Times analyzed the studio’s long association with violent films, drawing a dotted line from “A Clockwork Orange” to Batman.

In an otherwise-thoughtful essay, a New Yorker critic suggested an end to midnight screenings, sounding oblivious to both statistical probability and at what point the crazies have won through acts of fear-based capitulation.

Bill Moyers — and several MSNBC hosts — derided easy access to guns, and the National Rifle Assn.’s political influence. Bill O’Reilly called Moyers “so dumb it hurts,” then proceeded to embrace a gun-control argument during a testy exchange with a Republican congressman. In this case, Forrest Gump’s admonition “Stupid is as stupid does” seems particularly appropriate.

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Each of the above evokes a mere piece of the puzzle. As for tackling where societal and media violence meet in all the issue’s complexity, hey, why let nuance get in the way of a good story?

Such myopic coverage reflects a media environment so prone to barking after stories of the moment, inconvenient questions and disclaimers tend to get ignored or downplayed. It’s among the most toxic byproducts of modern Web culture, which tends to reward traffic-boosting rhetorical bombast and dramatic (if cryptic) headlines — the one area where the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report see eye to exaggerated eye.

This climate favors black and white, cut and dried. It’s taken as a given, for example, depressed box office this past weekend is significantly attributable to skittish moviegoers staying away from the multiplex. The calculus becomes more challenging when seeking to factor in the more than 40 million people comfortably at home watching Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics, which also complicates year-to-year comparisons.

For that matter, few have paused to mention had the killings taken place at a university, military base, bar or hair salon — scenes of equally and unsettling mass slayings involving deranged gunmen in the recent past — would we even be undertaking this conversation, again, in the context of Hollywood movies?

Indeed, gun violence already tangentially impacted a summer release, prompting “Neighborhood Watch” to become merely “The Watch” because of the movie’s unintended association with the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Many of those referenced above have been around long enough to know better, but in the heat of the moment, underlying worldviews can easily cloud judgment. Journalism has also lost untold decades of institutional knowledge as it downsizes its way into the digital age — casting aside the perspective of experienced pros while heightening “the urgency to make news and drive traffic,” as New York Times columnist David Carr noted.

While the cited arguments might possess varying degrees of validity, almost all overlook the big picture — including decades of examining where the media-societal violence nexus resides, and how politicians have repeatedly exploited that ignorance.

Despite the understandable yearning for simplicity, this is one of those issues with no easy answers, no magic cure. The only near-certainty is as horrible as what happened in Colorado was, it’s unlikely to be the last time we’re left collectively shaking our heads.

As evidence look no further than the gun-loving city of Houston, which distributed a public-service announcement this week titled “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT. Surviving an Active Shooter Event.” As the website Talkingpointsmemo.com reported, the six-minute film “features actors staging a workplace shooting, while a narrator offers tips to viewers.” The first one should be avoiding Texas if at all possible.

Admittedly, nuance and qualifying statements can be frustrating, especially in a world that increasingly reduces observations to what fits in a 140-character snippet. Without them, though, we’re left with a hungry media beast unable to do much but thrash about blindly and, unlike that aforementioned elephant, woefully unburdened by its memory.

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