Virginia killings a crime for social media times
On-air murder of journalists were horrific but not unfamiliar in US cycle of violence
A memorial to journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward outside the offices of WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia. Photograph: Chris Keane
It’s 56 seconds long, a video of two murders being executed with the intention of having the maximum public exposure.
The killing of two journalists live on air in Virginia on Wednesday was a crime for these social media times when everyone is their own broadcaster and images of murder can be shared online with the swipe of a thumb.
With chilling effect, Vester Lee Flanagan, the disturbed black man with a track record of discord in his chequered career as a TV journalist, points the gun inches from the face of one of his victims, the effervescent 24-year-old Virginia television reporter Alison Parker.
She and the cameraman carrying out a live interview for the local Roanoke television station WDBJ7, 27-year-old Adam Ward, are unaware of their disgruntled former colleague who is about to end their lives in a blizzard of 15 shots.
Two camera anglesTheir murders had two camera angles – the killer’s own first-person video and the live shot from Ward’s camera, which captured the image of the gunman after he fell. Over this is a soundtrack of gunshot cracks, screams and cries of “Oh my God!”
In an age of few filters, many didn’t have to look for it or have the opportunity to choose not to watch Flanagan’s macabre statement: videos play automatically as soon they pop into your social-media feed.
Those who had the choice were urged not to click, not to give him what he wanted: attention and misplaced vengeance in a very public way. “He wanted to kill and make you watch it,” wrote blogger Joshua Rogers. “Resist him in the only way he can be resisted at this point.”
The video can be easily found online. Most media chose to illustrate the story with a photograph of a smiling Parker and Ward rather than images of the final moments.
Online commentators were outraged that some newspapers skirted the bounds of decency by printing screen- grabs from Flanagan’s video. The New York Daily News ran three photographs on its front page, all taken from Flanagan’s video showing an image of him pointing the gun, then the muzzle flash from the end of the gun and the image of a terrified Parker reacting to the first shot.
Flanagan, unable for more than a decade to hold down a job for any meaningful time, has recorded a piece of television news that will live long after him or anything he recorded during his unhappy time in broadcasting.
The picture that emerged of Flanagan since Wednesday is of a man full of anger who could not get on with colleagues. He took notice of things people said that he could take offence at, and blamed others for his problems, going so far as to claim racial discrimination. Legal actions he brought were settled or dismissed.
While he appeared to have mental issues, he had no criminal record so he easily passed a background check when he bought two Glock 9mm handguns from a federally licensed dealer.
Flanagan knew exactly what he was doing when he set out to kill his former colleagues and the media, both social and news, has followed through on exactly what he thought they would do: give him the attention he craved and an audience for his grievances.
The Virginia murders were bizarre but, tragically for American society, not unfamiliar. Flanagan in a 23-page manifesto-cum-suicide note faxed to the headquarters of ABC News in New York praised the Virginia Tech mass killer Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at the university in 2007 and Columbine High School, killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 12 students and a teacher.
Their mass shootings were played out too for a much wider audience. Cho sent a package of photographs, videos and documents to NBC News in between killing two of his victims and the other 30.
Harris and Klebold taped themselves bragging about killing the greatest number of people in a mass shooting and speculating whether Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino would direct the film of their killings.
There’s a saying on internet forums: “Pics, or it didn’t happen.” Flanagan, as a television news reporter, would have known this better than most and delivered on this command. By doing so, he shared one of the horrific visual records of America’s never-ending gun violence epidemic, whether we wanted to see it or not.