The fatal shooting of two Virginia broadcast journalists on live TV in August 2015 marks the latest event in a long string of video-ready violence.
Almost immediately afterward, the media picked up on the necessary talking points, primarily gun safety and racial identities of the parties involved — the new front lines for the War on Guns and War on Race.
The killer, Vester L. Flanagan, evoked the term “race war” in a manifesto the morning of the shooting. The June 2015 massacre by a white nationalist of a black church’s parishioners in Charleston, S.C., pushed him over the edge.
Moreover, Flanagan admired the two students who killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, and the shooter who gunned down 32 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007. Flanagan’s identity was shaped in part by the very terror he witnessed and followed through television and the Internet.
Imagine an entire generation shaped by this violence, raised in the age of endless war — not to mention violence at home as well as abroad.
NEW MEDIA PROVIDE REALITY TV
The media have milked violent moments of made-for-TV drama, like the Virginia shooting, to create battle lines. Its mission: Let’s start a new war.
Why? Because war makes money.
People fear evil and want good to prevail, so they’ll tune in for days to follow good vs. evil. This has rang true for centuries, with governments using propaganda to stir support for war. You’d think people would’ve caught on, but millennials — those born between 1982 and 2000, a generation fully formed by this era of endless war — don’t think about it.
Instead, the media and government further incite the glorification of war, helping produce and sell imagery that approves of war as a necessary characteristic of life.
The Vietnam War was the first televised war, the first time the world could watch, from the comforts of home, death by bomb and machine gun. The media could easily control the narrative, with networks and newspapers editing and producing content to be released at scheduled intervals. The truth could still be, and was, heavily skewed. The propaganda machine ran smoothly.
Then came cable television. The advent of CNN and 24-hour news demanded more footage with less time to edit. Speed became crucial.
Networks added news telecasts to stay current. Local news doubled down on the “action news” template of more stories and quicker cuts, mirroring the demand for speed that cable news birthed. The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 allowed for heavily biased news presentations.
And during this entire era, the millennial generation was just beginning to grow up.
Children were born into a world of rapid information without regard for balance. The Internet, and later handheld devices, would demand even more reckless distribution.
The events defining the millennial generation weren’t simply presented on the nightly news. They were pulled apart, fragmented, dissected and disseminated in every direction, and in whatever tone networks preferred. School shootings, church shootings, 9/11, plane crashes, abductions, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf War — there was no escape.
The Vietnam War may have been the first televised war, but the gulf war was the first total-media war. CNN supplied full coverage, live, showing night bombings and air strikes. It told stories of soldiers and Iraqis killed. And in time, the media learned to craft their narrative: President George H.W. Bush was the hero; Saddam Hussein was the villain.
Bush’s approval rating, at the end of the war, in February 1991, was at 89 percent.
The media and government furthered their narrative by selling war to the masses through song. Americans still wax poetic about Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl. At the biggest mass-media event in America, at the height of the war, Houston sang the song like a gospel tornado. She wore a red-white-and-blue track suit as the fighter jets flew overhead — the very type of jets that would help kill 2,300 Iraqi civilians. And the American people waved their flags.
A similar moment followed 9/11. President George W. Bush stepped onto the mound at Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the Major League Baseball World Series. In front of millions of viewers, with snipers patrolling on the stadium roof, with fear gripping everyone, Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch: a perfect strike. The pitch was lauded by the media as a moment of courage in the face of terror.
It was a baseball pitch. Yet, we ate it up.
Bush’s approval rating at the time was over 90 percent. The propaganda machine was rolling right along, painting its good guys and bad guys, propping up war as something that needed to be done.
THE BRANDING OF WAR
The result of all this propaganda? We glorify war in countless ways, the subtlety impressive when not galling.
See the “Support Our Troops” yellow ribbon on your neighbor’s Ford F-150 truck. Then watch the Ford F-150 commercial that boasts that the truck is “military grade.” See? Your F-150 is like a tank that can bulldoze foreign enemies. Be proud.
Maybe you’ve seen a baby sleeping in a crib with military-camouflage bedding. It’s so pervasive; camouflage is now on designer backpacks and purses, Crocs, kitchen appliances, travel mugs and iPod cases. Children can grow up in a home filled with camouflage toys and furniture, the images manipulating them to feel that camo is just a part of life — that war is just a part of life.
More prominent is daily home entertainment endorsing warfare. Video games are a clear example.
On Nov. 15, 2001, the game “Halo: Combat Evolved,” was released on the Xbox platform. In “Halo,” you are master chief, a super soldier in the future called to destroy aliens. “Halo” helped raise the profile of the first-person-shooter style of gaming, in which the player controls a character through a narrative. The objective: Kill, or be killed.
“Halo” wasn’t the first — coming after influential titles like “Doom,” “GoldenEye 007” and “Half-Life” — but it spawned a run of uber-realistic games that began to closely mirror the look of military combat.
This phenomenon reached a crescendo with the “Call of Duty” series, starting in 2003. The original “Call of Duty” games were set in World War II, providing some emotional distance for the player. But in 2007, developer Infinity Ward released “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,” in whi
ch the player controls a British Special Air Service recruit and US Marine, who fight radicals in the Middle East and nationalists in Russia. With advanced graphics and film-quality presentation, the games are nearly virtual reality. Actors such as Kevin Spacey, Idris Elba and Ron Perlman add an alpha-male heft to the games. If you’re an all-American tough guy, these are your games.
The “Modern Warfare” arc of “Call of Duty” is responsible for some of the world’s most popular video games, at times reaching figures of over 20 million copies sold.
BOW YOUR HEAD — AND KILL
The popularity of first-person-shooter video games is rivaled only by the popularity of violent movies, television shows and mobile apps that also succeed in glorifying war as a constant and necessary element of life that can bring heroism and honor.
People flocked to theaters in 2014 to watch “American Sniper,” the story of a US Navy SEAL whose mission was to kill. “American Sniper” made $350 million worldwide, more than any movie in 2014.
Other top-grossing films in 2014 included “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” ($259 million) and “Transformers: Age of Extinction” ($245 million), which, by using toys, poorly disguises propaganda about pulling up bootstraps and killing others.
Top television shows in 2014-15 included military-investigation procedural series “NCIS” (21 million viewers per week), “NCIS: New Orleans” (18.3 million) and “Madam Secretary” (14.3 million), in which America’s secretary of state plots foreign attacks by day, then settles down at night by — what else — playing first-person-shooter video games.
Even mobile-gaming apps, those time-wasting toys of millennials, glorify death and destruction. Making nearly $1 billion for its developer within 18 months, “Clash of Clans” asks the player to build a community only to train and utilize troops. The entire point of “Clash of Clans” is to carry out military missions.
Worst yet is “Game of War,” which doesn’t attempt to hide its intentions. Like in “Clash of Clans,” players in “Game of War” are asked to produce troops and attack other communities. Using barely clothed, blond bombshell model Kate Upton as its original spokesperson, “Game of War” sold well, projecting $600 million in revenues in 2014.
Yes, war sells very, very well. TJ