Cameras or guns

How Cable News Networks (re)Massacred Virginia Tech

HOME          ARCHIVES         PREFACE        OAQ          BACKSTORY          BIBLIOGRAPHY           COMMENT


On 16 April 2007 the breaking news of the shootings at Virginia Tech flashed across my TV screen.  I ran my TiVo’s for one entire week, ripping raw content from all three, 24-hour, U.S. cable news networks: CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. 

Linked below, is a 105-minute, twelve-chapter, ethnographically surreal video compilation of the cable news coverage of the shooting incident at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University entitled: Cameras or Guns: How Cable News Re-massacred Virginia Tech (2006)It has been my most difficult project to date since every horrifically exploitive news clip utterly speaks to the profound sickness in broadcast journalism, and indeed in our culture, when sadistic voyeurism and narcissistic self-congratulation are incessantly repeated as dominant themes.

But... I took the hours of Virginia Tech footage and re-edited them incorporating principles from Vertov’s Kino Pravda and early Eisenstein montage to capture an explosive collision that actively transcends binary interpretation.  The construction unveils a call for a renewal of the journalistic standards and practices found throughout the writings of James Carey, Todd Gitlin, and John Fiske.  But mostly I heard Jean Rouch and Jay Ruby, visual anthropologists both, as they bracketed my way down the path of surreal ethnographic film as epistemology…

Click the numbers below to view Cable News broadcast

coverage remixed chronologically:


“Walter Benjamin was later to rejoice that “cinemagoers have become examiners, but examiners having fun.”  If we turn the phrase around, things look a bit less promising: what we are now dealing with is an audience for whom the investigation, the test, has become fun.  Actions spring from terror, events that embody the new passion, like stringing people up to lampposts, brandishing freshly lopped heads on spikes, storming palaces or hotels, seeing residents’ names are posted on the door of apartment blocks, reducing the Bastille to rubble, desecrating convent and places of worship, digging up the dead…Nothing is scared any more because nothing is now meant to be inviolable.  This is the tracking down of darkness, the tragedy brought about by an exaggerated love over light.”   

- Paul Virilio

“The terms for allowing the use of cameras at the front for nonmilitary purposes have become much stricter as war has become an activity prosecuted with increasingly exact optical devices for tracking the enemy.  There is no war without photography, that notable aesthete of war Ernst Junger observed in 1930, thereby refining the irrepressible identification of the camera and the gun, “shooting” a subject and shooting a human being.  War-making and picture-taking are congruent activities: “It is the same intelligence, whose weapons of annihilation can locate the enemy to the exact second and meter” wrote Junger, “that labors to preserve the great historical event in fine detail.”  

- Susan Sontag

THE EVENT  (2:20): One of the very first items broadcast, this fateful day, was a student’s chilling eye-witness audio account of the slaughter.  As will become most evident throughout these videos, the missing ingredient all networks were salivating for was any kind of actual video from the horrific event itself.  If only there were video of actual bullets going into actual student heads... that would garner some awesome ratings.  So, I decide to begin my ethnographically surreal construct by contriving that horrific TV scene for them.

BREAKING NEWS  (5:50):  Finally, one ‘resourceful’ VT student has the presence of mind to immediately upload cell phone video directly to CNN.  CNN, never to look a gift-horse in the mouth, recognizes the gift’s attraction -- and promotes the hell out of it by looping the same information over and over as they frantically invent a story-weave.  All other networks are hot on CNN’s heels -- panting to relay their growing numbers of incoming website hits.

EYEWITNESS  (10:00): No potential interviewee is exempt from TV scrutiny.  Within minutes, most TV outlets, local and national, are on campus scouring the scene for anyone willing to speak on camera.  Is there any ethical journalistic standard regarding broadcasting victims in states of shock?  Apparently not, particularly when weighed against profitable opportunities to eagerly promote, “The worst mass-murder (not just on a campus, BUT) in U.S. history!”

ON THE RECORD  (6:30):  As the number of students willing to speak on-camera dwindle, the networks fan out to ferret others, whether interviewees have anything to say or not.  Of course, with 24/7 news coverage, endless hours of programming must be filled.  And so, if you can’t get folks to say something ‘juicy”... ask leading questions to tease something out.

NARCISSISM  4:00): Eureka!  A mysterious package arrives unannounced at NBC headquarters.  The package’s contents?... “the killer’s manifesto”.  This package amounts to a veritable ratings gold mine.  For one brief moment, just long enough to consult legal, NBC decides it is their private scoop, “air as much as we possibly can... and then repeat how ‘honorable and ethical’ NBC is by not showing the stuff that really ‘SHOCKS’”.  None are more narcissistic than those jockeying to be on TV.  Indeed, TV is our primary teacher of un-reflexive, narcissistic ‘journalism’.

MULTIMEDIA MANIFESTO  (3:45):  “The question is... how did this grow into THIS?...”  How can this question even be asked by TV, straight-faced, when television’s own multimedia manifestos stream endlessly into every home in America.  Read this video’s words very carefully.  Look at the pictures.  Now recall, from your own experience, just how many kinds of TV programming resemble these exactly produced texts.

RETREAT - REGROUP  (9:00):   “Hey, we wouldn’t have to report this stuff if our world were only more diligent, more caring, more concerned.”  Read:  School security was lax, video games make kids sick, gun laws are ineffective, movies today are violent.... pick your poison... just don’t blame TV.  TV always refuses to acknowledge its own role in events like these.  “Don’t shoot the messenger too.”

BLOWBACK  (13:20): Wait, a reflexive TV moment?  How so?  The networks begin to scramble after receiving ‘heat’ from several quarters about airing the ‘manifesto’.  Time for a new (defensive) tactic.  Time to backtrack and build public sympathy by painting the networks as ‘ethical’.   How so?  Use talking points like “responsible”, “voyeuristic”, “reality”, “integrity”.   To wit: “If we didn’t air it, others would.  Yes, it was horrific, but it was news.  There was really nothing we could do...”  Yet the networks parade this new tactic while continuing to hype the very same broadcasts with the very same exploitive language and images.

OUTFLANK  (14:45):   “Threading the journalistic needle.”   MSNBC, long considered the weakest of the three cable news outlets, feels growing heat on two fronts.  On one hand, NBC originally released a majority of the horrific content, and viewers are complaining.  On the other hand, other networks, like FOX with their on-going vendetta against NBC, now have a hammer to pummel the competition on ethical talking points.  “They exploited... we practice restrained journalism.”

JUDICIOUS EXPLOITATION  (14:40):   “Judiciously”?  What the hell does this mean?  Answer: Keep on showing the visuals anyway, as much as possible - but with one trick.  Further demonize by JAZZING-UP the original exploitive imagery

with still more media-manipulation production tools.  In short, simply re-package these images again: Animate them, super-impose one on another, layer scary movie music, intersperse them with other horrific shooting events.  Virginia Tech images can now be continually looped for endless profit.  “Let’s turn the whole thing into a gazillion promos... it’s what we do best.”   Judicious?

EDITORIAL  (7:20):   Obscene media editorials beg still more surreal ethnography. This is our most familiar brand of TV: talking heads, pontificating endlessly.  No problem, there is plenty of room for all kinds of TV content.  BUT:  All this drivel is broadcast under one banner: NEWS.  So there is a problem, a big one: News, journalism, editorial, and opinion are all very different things.  To conflate them is to fundamentally mis-read all ethical information dissemination.  To examine them together is to fundamentally re-read cultural dis-function

CAMERAS - GUNS  (14:50):   In the end... if there ever could be such a thing... TV plays its obligatory role in “national mourning”.   But, in parallel, all three cable news networks morph the Virginia Tech debate for their personal agendas. 


Why guns?... Who can look away from a gun?  Danger, death and destruction hold eyeballs.  Guns sell, plain and simple.  But then, our cameras are guns, too.


And then, almost like flipping a switch, this story fell from the airways.  After six days of non-stop, wall-to-wall coverage...

Virginia Tech disappeared from my screen.

May  2007

...but then again, as we have witnessed so many times since this event, very little has changed...   For instance here, with this horrific up-close pornographication of Chardon High School shooting on 28 Feb 2012:




An American

resident of Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming.