Newtown’s magical thinking

December 12, 2013

Newtown, Conn., city officials want my type to stay out of town this Saturday, which marks the first anniversary of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My type, of course, is the nosey parkers who call themselves journalists, the ones who stick microphones and cameras in the faces of the distraught, who knock on the doors of the bereaved and phone them incessantly for interviews.

But neither does the legislative council of Newtown want America to forget what happened in their town one year ago. This paradox — don’t forget us but don’t bother us, either — poured a load of sand into the media gears, as Paul Farhi writes today in the Washington Post. Heeding the admonition to stay away from Newtown this weekend are CNN, Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, NPR, NewsHour, the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post.

I, too, implore reporters to avoid Newtown this Saturday, but for editorial reasons that have nothing to do with sensitivity to the families who lost members in the attack. I deplore anniversary coverage of most if not all events, because in almost all cases anniversaries produce journalism that affixes a new introduction on old clips. Readers may love anniversary stories, but that’s still no excuse for running them unless you’ve got something genuinely new to add. But if you do have something new to add, why wait for the anniversary? Publish it when you confirm it!

The Newtown directive to the press not to report from the city on the event’s anniversary imagines that the city and its residents have a special standing in a “custody battle” over the story, which continues to unspool. Just last week, the 911 recordings from the event were released to the press a week after a judge rejected the state’s attorney’s motion to seal them. “Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials,” Superior Court Judge Eliot D. Prescott wrote. According to the Hartford Courant, the state’s attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III wanted the 911 records sealed “because they contained information related to child abuse.”

“It’s almost as if he’s behaving like a private attorney for the Sandy Hook families,” First Amendment attorney Daniel J. Klau complained to the Connecticut Post about Sedensky’s possessive ways. “The state’s attorney is not private counsel for the victims and families. That is troubling.”

Newtown doesn’t seem to oppose public commemorations of their dead. Quite the contrary, they want very much for their dead to be remembered. The city officials just appear to want to pick the time and place. Earlier this week, the 26 families that lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, at the school unveiled a website, My Sandy Hook Family, “where each family can share information on how they are honoring victims,” as the Associated Press reported. In a Dec. 9 news conference, more than a dozen Sandy Hook families took the microphone, family by family, to give the name of the person they’d lost and to promise to light a candle for them on the anniversary’s eve. Press corps cameras and notepads recorded the event and published the results.

But even when death appears in its most bloody and tragic forms, nobody owns those events. Newtown may want to erect a taboo that would shame reporters from revisiting the town every Dec. 14 to replay the story, but a press outlet should feel free to ignore the taboo if the taboo conflicts with the outlet’s news sense. The collection of news would end tomorrow if we restricted its practice to times and places that would not upset the subjects of news. Besides, the families who’ve lost a member to death are not always unified in their opposition to talking to the press. Some family members may refuse to talk to the press while others may want nothing more than to talk, to make certain that a loved one is not forgotten and that justice is served.

The press may have been successfully cowed from coming to Newtown on this anniversary itself, as Farhi’s story in the Post reports, but it is still running soft anniversary coverage: CNN ran a one-hour special hosted on Wednesday night that included interviews with Newtown families, he writes. Additionally, the Post itself intends to cover a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral.

This is what news looks like when “stakeholders” play the dominant role in dictating what’s covered and when it’s covered.

I understand the symbolic power of anniversaries. Both happy and miserable marriages celebrate them. We honor our war dead annually and we decorate graves with flowers when death’s anniversary arrives. We celebrate our birth dates when they come around and some people still get a gold watch from the company after 20 years of service. Anniversaries make sense only because we’re a forgetful species. We need reminders to remember the things that have delighted or horrified us in the past, and we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that anniversaries provide a portal to the past that non-anniversaries don’t.

That’s all magical thinking. The grieving people of Newtown have every right to ask to be left alone on Dec. 14. But the press, if it thinks it has a story to tell, has the same right to visit the town and report.


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PHOTO: Members of the media watch as family members of the victims killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Conn., give a statement about the formation of the website several days before the one year anniversary of the killings, Dec. 9, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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