Yellow Journalism: True Crime versus Sympathy for Criminals

One of my fellow Charlestonians was a man who ran a successful campaign against a congressional candidate on the basis of said candidate’s Judaism in the year 1980 and was able to do the same two years earlier on the basis of his opponent being treated for teenage depression. He was a master, more than anything, at giving the sensational stories people wanted and creating a melodramatic reality that infatuated the public like a good screenwriter. He also looked like Ted Bundy. His name was Lee Atwater. Ted Bundy, himself, was one of Lee Atwater’s greatest assets in the 1988 campaign. In a season dominated by candidates advocating stances on how to crack down on crime, a non-representative, anecdotal, case of a cartoonish serial killer did everything to scare and enrage the population into supporting more draconian and crueler punishments and sentiments toward criminals.

In an atmosphere of fear and rage, the public endowed in a democracy with the power of lawmaking cannot make the reasoned, scientific, choices that they need to be making. The entire True Crime and half of the Horror genre, both of which are very popular today, is basically the Willie Horton Ad turned into an industry. While people may know consciously, it’s fiction, it all influences their cognitive biases and social queues and subconsciously affects their political choices.  Politically, as someone who wants to create a more humane and loving society, including the abolition of capital punishment and drastic reforms to our penal system to nurture and heal the usually broken humans caught in it, the True Crime and Horror genres are among my sworn enemies. (Granted, I do enjoy True Crime stories, such as the movie Gandhi which is a wonderful true story about a career criminal)

While poor, mostly, non-dangerous people are in prison and with convictions on their records, the public is unsympathetic. Recently, in a state as liberal as California, a referendum to abolish the death penalty lost. Personally, I wish people could delineate the sensational from the sensible. If there is one thing one learns both working for the angels or the dark side, in politics, it is that people are more emotional than rational and a sadly significant portion of political work is appealing to people’s pathos void of any logos or ethos. The public sees a worthy victim or romantic monster and hormones flood their brains that don’t flood mine. More people die from overdoses than from murder and most murders are street-crime related and not stalking related or sexual, therefore I have no reason to watch serial killers. When I look for news, I skim the headlines and click on the stories I believe are statistically relevant. I will usually only click on human-interest stories if they have attained a level of public influence that they are important to know, not for their original content.

As a citizen, it is important that my subconscious as well as my conscious have a realistic perspective on of the world. It seems, recently, that the very idea that cheap human-interest stories are a vice has been forgotten. I am surprised now to find that when people gorge on the toxic fluff, they are unaware that it is bad for them in any way. While consuming statistically unrepresentative horror stories that skew the cognitive biases in the wrong direction would seem to be obviously wrong for a citizen expected to wield the power of civic duty, this obviousness is lost on them. It is not only serial killers, it goes in the other direction as well. That of worthy victims skewing the cognitive biases to sympathize with certain classes of people and not others. In some cases, cute posterchildren are perfectly okay. There was nothing wrong with the coverage of the Thai Cave Rescue. In the cases where they are sensational victims is when the media gets toxic. Stories one wants to avoid, especially, are melodramas with romantic heroes and villains. The human stories behind victimizations and crimes are complex and nuanced and almost never what human-interest-stories play them out to be.

As a believer in Aristotle and Jane Jacobs, I am a hardline traditionalist conservative in the earnest meaning of that term. I am also a radical liberal and a socialist. On issues of supporting a more traditional community design and restoring virtue and honor to our Rawlsian society, I would seem to be in agreement with a significant portion of the rhetoric of the other side’s culture warriors of decades past. Yet, I am in fundamental disagreement with their sentiments and almost everything else they held surrounding those issues. Most of what the culture warriors argued for was not for traditional values so much as it was just a sadistic cruelty toward socially divergent or minority demographics. Not to mention they said and did nothing about engineering urban design to their purportedly desired ends which would seem to be the logical thing for them. The question for me is why they went about promoting Christianity and traditional values by slut-shaming and demonizing the already ostracized? I support marriage equality, of course. But they may have successfully opposed it had they not screamed “sodomite” and told them they deserved to die in masse during the AIDS epidemic. Instead of just taking a conservative position and attempting to use sober and scientific methods to win their campaigns, they didn’t and just used as much excessive brutality as they could. The question is why did they?

Because while vengeance and hatred are definitely not Biblical, they are definitely human and while opposing people while treating them with loving kindness is exactly what Christ commanded. It’s not sensational. What’s a culture war without fire, brimstone, drag queens, and accusations of pedophilia?  That stuff’s juicy, gory, and fun. They may have been televangelists but sinful pleasure is synonymous with that profession. So even though the tactics backfired and they watched Obergegell v. Hodges as the Appomattox of their long crusade, it was worth every second of visceral orgasmic elation. They didn’t want to win, they did almost everything within their power to lose, they played for the thrill of the game. There are other ways to find enjoyment in the pulpit and in politics, chai lattes are more pleasurable than opioids, but there are few alternatives if one is looking for raw dopamine and endorphin drenched ecstasy.

Covering rapturous stories about murderous rapes and child molesters doesn’t do much to curb child molestation or rape; sociology, psychology, and other science is how our society would do that, but they do give the people the satisfying histrionic emotion they lust for. They are counterproductive in almost every way and toxic to both the mind and the soul yet they are tempting to the lowest parts of our brains. As citizens that must participate in making polices that affect our neighbors and as humans who must love our neighbors, yellow journalism is the highest of malnutrition.

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