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Media out of its depth

Why TV channels won't sustain gun debate

A lot of foolish, shortsighted things were said following the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., on opening night of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

It’s just hard to remember — this far removed from those painful days — precisely what they said and who said them. And in a nutshell, that’s the problem, as the media careens from one shooting tragedy to the next — asking questions, grieving with victims, digging up details about perpetrators and then, almost as quickly, moving on.

Several networks expanded the length of newscasts Friday to cover what happened, which is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the media’s relationship with inexplicable violence like the elementary school killings in Newtown, Conn.

They go long, yes, but not particularly deep.

“Deep” is what’s called for, although seriously exploring causes and potential responses are complicated — and must go beyond “guns don’t kill people” platitudes.

A few facts seem indisputable: It is difficult to legislate away alienated loners; said loners would be hard-pressed to kill so wantonly without a gun, especially a rapid-firing one; and the Second Amendment protects gun ownership although, as with the First Amendment and indecency or yelling “Fire!” in a theater, that’s open to interpretation and not necessarily absolute.

Given the issue’s political thorniness, seeking the “meaningful action” President Obama referenced may be impossible — especially for the current administration, based on the hysteria his election unleashed in certain quarters. Yet even a frank discussion acknowledging that would be a step forward. Instead, every new outrage brings anguish but not sustained analysis about guns, their unique capacity to kill so promiscuously and what, if anything, can be done.

Will the horrifying murder of schoolchildren change that equation? If past shootings in malls, theaters, temples and other schools didn’t, it’s difficult to see why now.

After Aurora, many in the media overlooked this resiliency. As a consequence, there were articles that appeared patently absurd within days — proposing a ban on midnight screenings, charting Warner Bros.’ history of releasing violent films, even then-Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein’s pointing fingers at “Dark Knight’s” marketing while asserting that the lingering fallout would deal “a huge blow to the movie industry.”

A robust fall, including this weekend’s record December opening for “The Hobbit,” suggests otherwise.

This collective ability to absorb tragedy and move on is helpful, but it’s also illustrative of an attention-deficit culture that thwarts progress. In this environment, prolonged conversation can occur only if the subject is a Kardashian.

As usual, gun-rights advocates use proximity to tragedy to squelch policy changes under the “too soon” excuse; liberals are again left wondering what it takes to get people riled enough to act.

When a White House spokesman’s initial statement Friday signaled this wasn’t the day to re-litigate gun control, former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann asked via Twitter: “The Columbine discussion we deferred? When do we have that discussion? The Giffords discussion? Portland Mall? Aurora Movie Theater? When?”

Others used Twitter to vent as well. In the strange-bedfellows department, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch sided with Olbermann, lamenting, “Terrible news today. When will politicians find courage to ban automatic weapons?” That’s the sort of comment that gets someone labeled a left-wing wacko on Murdoch’s Fox News Channel.

Any student of history and media, however, would conclude that it was just venting. Since politicians sidestep gun control faster than a speeding bullet, it’s incumbent upon media to keep the debate front and center and, simply put, nothing suggests that will happen, either.

Granted, anchors and the Sunday-morning shows flocked to Connecticut, where ABC’s George Stephanopoulos morbidly originated “This Week” from the library of the middle school the kids would have attended had they survived. “Do you think this could be a tipping point?” he asked.

Columnist George Will concluded the practical challenges to curbing such events were insurmountable. “This is a political, not a jurisprudential, problem,” he said.

Will omitted another key factor: a media problem. Because after a few days, those anchors will pack up and return to New York and D.C. And Newtown will join Aurora and too many others on the tragic roster of names in our fast-fading memories.

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