Opinion

Why the ‘Daily News’ Cover of the VA Journalist Murders Is Exploitative

(screenshot via YouTube)
(screenshot via YouTube)

Last night, a tweet from writer Stassa Edwards led me to a post on Gawker about yesterday’s New York Daily News cover. The cover, which I will not reproduce here, relates to the on-air murder of two journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, in Moneta, Virginia, on Wednesday, by a former colleague of theirs, Vester Lee Flanagan II, known professionally as Bryce Williams. In addition to the TV news footage that exists of the shooting, Flanagan recorded his own videos of it and posted them on Twitter, before going on to kill himself. For its Thursday cover, the News took three still images from one of Flanagan’s videos and laid them out in a neat triptych. This means the sequence is shot from Flanagan’s point of view, with his arm and gun in the foreground and Parker just beyond, conducting an interview. The three images literally show the moment of Parker’s murder: the taking aim, the flare of the gunshot, and her shocked face when the bullet hits her. The News took the liberty of adding a word across the top of the images — a title for the triptych, if you will: “EXECUTED.”

It is truly a horrific, exploitative, and shameless cover. It is one of the rare things that I wish I could unsee. It should never have been printed, and it certainly should not be defended.

In his Gawker piece — which is titled, “This Is a Good Newspaper Front Page” — writer Sam Biddle attempts to argue that seeing these images of Parker is important because doing so will probably force (his word and emphasis) viewers to do something about the epidemic of gun violence in the US. The substance of it comes in this second paragraph:

Reading about gun violence isn’t enough. A shooting is a visual tragedy. There’s a muzzle flash, bullets, a wound, blood, and bodies. When we see an upsetting image, our brain draws on tens of thousands of years of evolutionary training for a proper response. We are flooded with chemicals that make us feel the badness of what we see, so that we can adjust our behavior accordingly. Maybe that means running away from a tiger, or maybe it means passing gun control legislation. But horror is healthy and normal, and means your brain is working as intended. It’s a useful response, because it might convince you—it might force you—to viscerally react to our nation’s epidemic of gun violence. If people see photos of Alison Parker being effortlessly slaughtered by a disgruntled former co-worker with an easily obtained firearm, maybe they will conclude that guns are devices of horror and easy death. If so, it will be worth the discomfort. It’s a nice fantasy, but you can’t pretend that discomfort is optional; feeling like shit is a necessary part of being alive.

The horrifically twisted irony, of course, is that Alison Parker isn’t alive. She doesn’t have the luxury of “feeling like shit” about the world anymore. Would that matter if we knew for sure, without a doubt, that these images of her murder would force the NRA to relent its endless lobbying and Congress to pass a gun control law? Maybe not. But we don’t know that. We never can. And in the meantime, we are violating her body and her memory by forcing her to die, over and over again, forever, while we watch.

The problem with still images — which, when pulled from their source video in this way, become like photographs — is that they do not have a fixed meaning. Susan Sontag, John Berger, and countless other photographic theorists have written books on this. “All photographs are ambiguous,” Berger says in his essay “Appearances.” “Yet often this ambiguity is not obvious, for as soon as photographs are used with words, they produce together an effect of certainty, even of dogmatic assertion.” Sound familiar?

“What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness,” Sontag writes in On Photography. “Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.” The biggest problem with Biddle’s argument — aside from its failure to tell us how to swiftly move from that flood of chemicals, or “demoralizing emotional blow,” to gun control legislation (something many people have been trying to do for decades!) — is that it assumes a singular politics: one viewing mindset and one meaning for the photos, a “proper response” to the “badness” as the only response. How can this ever be guaranteed? As Jeet Heer put it so well in The New Republic, in a discussion of Flanagan’s videos: “Could showing the Virginia video help de-glamorize guns? Perhaps, but it could just as easily make those enthralled by gun culture put even more faith in weapons.”

The complications of the News images are numerous. For one, their point of view makes them look highly stylized, like they’ve been pulled from a movie or a first-person shooter video game. The paper plays this up by laying them out in a triptych, as if they comprised a religious altar or a Warhol installation, and slapping a sensational word that hints at retribution, or some form of justice, on top. Importantly, the point of view of the stills also sets them apart from the primary category of terrible images we’ve come to know and accept: photojournalism. Biddle completely misses this distinction when he attempts to crudely draw a comparison between Wednesday’s Daily News cover and the covers of newspapers in the wake of 9/11. Photojournalistic images of death abound, and though they’re not without controversy, at the end of the day, most of us believe that photojournalism serves a purpose, whether it be relaying the news, eliciting empathy for the victims, or inciting some kind of political action. Photojournalism, at its heart, is about a kind of connection, even if its immediate subject is the severance of such. Stills from Flanagan’s gruesome killing video are not about connection or empathy; they do not present a newsworthy event from an outsider’s perspective. They are the propaganda of a murderer.

Because of that, a better comparison here would be with the ISIS beheading videos. Yet, even then, one could make the case that the ISIS videos are fair game because their political context is far clearer. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s an argument I can entertain. Flanagan’s videos and images do not offer us a clear political opponent or cause; in fact, I’d argue they do just the opposite: reinforce the idea that we are looking at a lone, crazed killer rather than witnessing the workings of a true epidemic.

The images also play into our culture of misogyny awfully well. It’s no accident, or surprise, that the News chose to put stills of Parker being killed, not Ward, on its cover. Stassa Edwards touched on this when she tweeted last night, bringing in theorist Roland Barthes and his discussion of images:

Stassa-tweets
(screenshot via @StassaEdwards/Twitter)

And indeed, there is something deeply, uncomfortably fetishistic about that image of the pale-skinned, blonde-haired, pleasantly dressed Parker caught in shock at her own death. It’s almost familiar in the way it recalls horror movies and Quentin Tarantino films and procedural dramas, echoing a cultural fixation on “dead girls” that Edwards recently wrote about for The Awl.

The News’ Flanagan images are equally disturbing in the way they affirm racist narratives that have buoyed the US for centuries. When Dylann Roof, the Charleston terrorist who killed nine African Americans in Charleston, told congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that “you rape our women,” he was spouting a longstanding myth in which the bodies of white women become justification for the killing and oppression of black men. Now, on the cover of the Daily News, we have horrific images of a black man killing a white woman. Are they true, in the sense that this event happened? Of course. But by printing the stills, the Daily News has not only detached the meaning of Parker’s body from her person; it has offered up these images as free-floating signifiers, most dangerously for the justification for more violence — from the angry gun owner, the self-proclaimed defender of white women’s purity, the police officer who thinks all black men are dangerous, and anyone else who sees in them, as we all do, whatever he wants.

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