“Wise men lay up knowledge, but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.” - Proverbs 10:14 (KJV) -
Limited information on a possible serial killer in New York was provided today on Fox News by correspondent Trace Gallagher. Among a variety of details provided, we were told this killer made several calls on disposable cell phones from very crowded locations such as Madison Square Garden, which made the calls very difficult, if not impossible to trace. We were also told the man made “taunting” calls to a sister of one of the victims that were “less than three minutes long” which also made those calls “impossible to trace”.
The media, be they conservative or liberal, seem to have made a habit of providing whatever information they gather, regardless of the possible repercussions making that information available to the public might cause. When will reporters and news stations value discretion over information? When will the media stop providing information that assists potential copycats and less intelligent criminal elements in becoming smarter criminals? I’m not certain when the media decided it was more important to give details, then it was to consider what details were being given, but I think it’s time for review.
Perhaps the assumption among news providers is that the information is already “common knowledge” and therefore no consideration need be given to whether or not to share it. But that is perhaps only the case because someone else prior to them has willingly shared that information. But the question is not whether or not the information has been previously or is presently available; the question is why share it now?
In the hunt for a serial killer is there any benefit in the general public knowing he uses untraceable cell phones? Is it of use to know he calls from crowded locations? Does it help Joe Public identify, or assist in the apprehension of this maniac to know these details? Then why share them? Why allow for the possibility that some uninformed psychopath, who previously had no idea that disposable phones were untraceable, or that calls are harder to trace in crowded locales to add this to his deviant repertoire?
Yet reporters do not stand alone with regard to the total shucking of discretion when it comes to information. Hollywood has spent decades showing off their “intelligence” by creating criminal masterminds and showing step by step how they pull off terrible crimes. Several years ago, in 2005, an article was posted on the Mathematical Association of America’s website under the blog heading “Devlin’s Angle”. Titled “Numb3rs Gets the Math Right”, the article explained the truth behind the philosophy of the television show “Numb3rs”, which supposed that math could be utilized in solving crimes. Keith Devlin, the blog’s mastermind, went onto note, “If the series does go down the tubes after a few episodes, it won't be because the math is wrong. The producers have gone to great lengths to get the math right. (They also have a real-life FBI agent on the set to make sure the police stuff is correct as well.)”
Hollywood, as a business, in an effort to make their fiction more “fact-based”, spares no expense in hiring experts to make certain they get their details right. Yet the ethics behind such a business seems often overshadowed by its chief priorities of money making and dramatic, true-to-life storytelling. While this model certainly accomplishes its goal, it could easily be argued that it also provides any individual who pays to watch the program with some otherwise unavailable information. As we see with “Numb3rs”, not only do we tell criminals how to commit crimes, but we also hire law enforcement experts to teach criminals how we catch them.
For example, last night I watched the film “The Last Three Days” starring Russell Crowe. In the film, where Crowe, a lowly community college professor decides to break his wife out of prison, begins to research how to go about it. At one point he watches an online video that illustrates how a Tennis ball can be used to open a car door without a key.
Though the method itself was proven to be false over a year ago, when I searched the video on youtube I found two interesting facts: 1) The vid had been viewed by nearly 600 thousand people, and 2) two random posts from visitors to the video read as follows: “The Next Three Days sent me here. LOL” & “The Next Three Days - hahahaha”.
There is no arguing that ideas spread. There is also no arguing that what goes into a movie, or comes through a television set, or posts on the internet provides open access to anyone and everyone who has a way of reaching those mediums. It is also true that there is no real way to keep unsavory types who might use the information to the harm of others from doing so. However, we as individuals can, through personal choice and accountability, use some discretion with regard to the information we provide to the public.
How would we go about curtailing something like this? Certainly we can’t blame all of this on the correspondents. In high pressure jobs such as theirs, when content is expected to be provided 24/7, it would seem inevitable that one would have to talk about every single thing discovered in order to fill the void. Yet this could be the very crux of the problem. These correspondents need jobs; the networks demand high productivity, and so every day is a scramble to fill a bottomless pit of silence considered by most media execs to be a fate worse than death.
In 1976, Screenwriter Patty Chayefsky made waves that led to an Oscar nod with his prophetic portrayal of the beginning of the end for network news. “Network”, starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch zooms in on an historic event in the history of news. Prior to this event, television networks slated their news divisions as a public service, and therefore an acceptable loss of revenue. News divisions were accountable neither for their ratings or their financial returns. But all that changed in the mid to late 70‘s. From that point on, news was no longer a service, but a primetime show, expected to rank top among its competitors, and hold the largest audience. Chayefsky argued, in true dramatic prose, that this transition would mark the end of unbiased, unmolested reporting.
The trouble today appears directly related to the demand by the major networks that their news divisions entertain, rather than inform the masses. Almost as if it doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you’re saying something. And so 24 hours a day, seven days a week, rhetoric is spewed forth on practically every channel, and in the process, few things are filtered - even if they should be. It seems to me any journalist, or correspondent should consider a few things before providing certain information. 1) Is this information potentially dangerous to release to the public? 2) If so, does the public having this information assist in potentially solving the problem, and/or crime? 3) If so, is there a way I can phrase the information so as to give as little detail as possible while still conveying the thought?
What the film “Network” warned us of so long ago was to be careful just how much leaven we put in any given lump. Of course we must inform the public of dangerous situations. Of course it is our duty and commitment to sometimes deal in uncomfortable information, unfortunate though it may be. But do we not also have a duty to use a sort of preventative medicine so we don’t carelessly, by reporting too many trivial facts, provide information to others who might go out and do the same thing in the future with the assistance of the information we’ve given them? Do we not need to consider which truth is necessary, especially when it comes to the facts of a crime, and apply a sincere discretion to information?
Coincidentally, “Network” lost the Oscar for “Best Picture” to Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”. Patty Chayefsky, disgusted beyond restitution, never penned another screenplay. But with respect to the man, I ask you: Have we sacrificed our convictions and offered up our fundamental values on the altar of mass appeal? Was Mr. Chayefsky right? And if indeed he was, what are we doing about it? “Does not a little leaven, leaveneth the whole lump?”