Calm Down Horiuchi!

"Entertainment News" Vs. the terror at Trolley Square.

On Monday night, February 12, 2007, a distressed young man walked into a Salt Lake City shopping mall (developed from historic trolley car barns) and began randomly shooting shoppers with a shotgun.  He also had a handgun and a backpack and bandolier full of ammunition.  He was intent on mass murder. 

He shot nine people, killing five, before the heroic actions of an off-duty police officer and the prompt response of Salt Lake City police ended his homicidal stroll in a hail of bullets.  The first 911 call was received at 6:44 PM and Sulejman Talovic was dead by 6:50 PM.

Despite the fact that shootings at shopping malls are not that rare-there were three in the US last December alone including one on Christmas Eve in Florida-this recent shooting has attracted much attention because of its particular actor.

Sulejman Talovic was a child refugee from Bosnia who escaped Srebrenica with his family just before the infamous massacre. He was a Muslim and the blogosphere has lit up with the supposed implications of this “terrorist act” by a “militant muslim.”  The conspiracy theory buffs have pounced on this story like a duck on a June bug.

After almost a week of intense police and press scrutiny, no evidence has emerged to support any Islamist terror theory.  Mr. Talovic apparently had no political agenda whatsoever, and far from being a “militant muslim,” he was not particularly faithful.  He was obviously distraught, but he completed his routine day’s work without attracting any attention.  His parents, his few friends, and neighbors saw no warning signs.  Years ago, he had some run-ins with juvenile authorities and he was a school drop-out.  He was obviously hurting inside, and he acted out his rage.  I am sure he knew it would end with his own death, but he did not see himself as any kind of “martyr” for any particular cause. He left no triumphant videotape to be broadcast on Al Jazeera.  His photo will not be displayed on any wall of terrorist “heroes.”  No terrorist organization has claimed him as one of their own.

His status as a refugee Muslim has rightly triggered reexamination by local community and school officials of the treatment of others in his situation looking for the casual prejudice, cruel comments, hateful acts, and cold exclusion that can ferment into such violence.  It is gratifying to see public officials reaching out to the local Bosnian and Muslim community with assurances of support. 

Already local papers have devoted whole sections to this story daily.  In fact they are running out of news and beginning to create stories to fill the space allotted.

On Wednesday, February 14, the Salt Lake Tribune’s film, TV, and entertainment editor Vince Horiuchi wrote a column published on page B6 in the middle of the section devoted to continuing coverage of the shooting in which he scolds the TV viewing audience for preferring to watch “Heroes” and “24” to continuous on-the-spot live coverage of the incident.  His column was headlined “TV shows trump tragedy?” I happened to be one to whom this column was directed and took immediate offense.

Breaking into regular TV programming was entirely justified at the first report of the incident.  In fact, this is my very first experience in Salt Lake City with genuine “breaking news” which phrase TV newscasters pander around indefensibly these days.  However, their subsequent and lengthier interruptions simply did not add any information and weren’t worth the air time.  Their reporters were not allowed in the mall and the police weren’t talking. It seemed to me that the TV station was just dying to actually use its remote news van and helicopter on a genuine story and wouldn’t quit broadcasting until it did.

Well, I wasn’t the only one offended. The stations got hundreds of complaint calls.  And in the end, ratings ruled.  After their first frenzy in the first half hour and after they finally got to use their remote setup and helicopter, there were no more interruptions until their regular evening news slot at which they once again had nothing new to report.  They still weren’t allowed on mall property and the police still weren’t talking.  After all, how many times do you need to repeat “There was a shooter in the mall; some people are dead; some people are wounded; the shooter has been killed by police;” until even the densest of viewers catches on!  And a banner would have sufficed for any new viewer tuning in.

The stations along with columnist Horiuchi at first defended themselves by saying that TV viewers could watch the entire program on their computers by linking to their web site.  Indeed the station was streaming a banner advising so while its reporters were adlibbing garbage on the air.  Horiuchi even went so far as to say that with the ability to download the whole episode and view it on your iPod, no one had cause to complain.  Watch an entire episode on your iPod? AS IF!

I think what disturbed me most was the apparent arrogant presumption by both the station and Horiuchi that the vast majority of TV viewers have a computer with a high-speed Internet connection much less a handy iPod.  This just ain’t so! 

If it were so, why didn’t the stations give us the best of both worlds by covering the news live on their web sites simultaneously with continuing their regular programs (with an appropriate referencing banner) on TV?  Those of us with a computer and a good connection could then actually watch both events at the same time. 

Why not?  Because they know they’ve got thousands of more viewers than web watchers.  They gambled that they would get some Hindenberg-style images of mass mayhem.  They lost.  The excitement was over by the time they arrived.  Ratings do rule and the stations are now announcing they will rerun the interrupted episodes in their entirety.

I did find Horiuchi's comments particularly self-righteously smug and fired off the following email to him and his editor:

Dear Editor

Congratulations to the Trib for its excellent coverage of the community tragedy at Trolley Square.  We are all grieving.

However, Vince Horiuchi’s recent column on the TV news coverage of the incident is vaguely sanctimonious and wrong-headed.  First; his assertion that we viewers could still see the entire episode via the Internet haughtily presumes that most of us share his high-speed connection when many of us don’t even have a computer much less an iPod. Second; his argument about new viewers tuning in is easily turned on its head.  Why didn’t the station simply stream a banner across the screen advising viewers of continuing live coverage on their web site?

We TV viewers were not upset by the stations’ decision to interrupt their programs with the first news of this shattering event.  But their repeated, lengthy, interruptions with no new information really annoyed us.  And yes, I do confess it, I would choose to watch Jack Bauer slapping around a few more terrorists than a giddy reporter breathlessly repeating, over and over, “Something really exciting is going on behind me, but I’m clueless.”

Yours truly,

Thomas Seddon

Words! Mere Words! Was there anything so real as words? - Dorian Gray