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Newtown: How Much Media Coverage Is Too Much?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, when rap pioneer Run from the group Run-DMC decided to get active in church, he had no idea how far it would go. We'll talk with him about his transition from rapping to preaching. That's later in the program.

But first, it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on the week's news with a panel of women writers, journalists and commentators. Sitting in their chairs for a new 'do this week are Viviana Hurtado, the blogger-in-chief of the website The Wise Latina Club. Michelle Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy.

That's a non-partisan research institute she founded. Democratic strategist Maria Cardona is with us. She's also a contributor to CNN and Mommyverse.com. And Melinda Henneberger writes about politics and culture at the Washington Post. She oversees their She The People blog. They're all here in our Washington D.C. studios. Ladies, thanks so much for joining us once again.



MARTIN: And I'm confident that everybody knows about the shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. It's been a major trauma, not just for that community but for the country. Right now we're speaking before President Obama's scheduled remarks on gun policy, but it seems clear that public opinion at least seems to be moving in the direction of more restrictive laws around guns.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted after the shooting found that 54 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control laws. Fifty-nine percent support a ban specifically on high capacity ammunition clips, and that's a change from recent years because it seems that the policy trend seems to be moving toward more relaxed restrictions, or fewer restrictions on gun ownership and ammunition ownership.

Melinda, I'm going to start with you because you had a complex reaction about this - to this, like I think a lot of people did. But I want to read from one of the columns that you wrote where you said we insist too on referring to the actions of desperately sick people as quote-unquote evil incarnate, though doing so not only gets us nowhere but sets us back.

It seems to me that you're suggesting that really we really need to be thinking about mental health very expansively and aggressively. You want to talk more about that?

HENNEBERGER: Absolutely. I mean in the 30 years since I've been following this issue, nothing has changed. There have been so many cuts to community mental health services, which is really kind of a misnomer because a lot of places there are no services. So you talk, you know, these families are in the same situation now they've been in for decades.

They can't get any help unless their loved one needs to be committed, which means they're a danger to themselves or to others. So when they say, you know, what were the warning signs, that alarm could have been going off and it's very likely that there was no help available.

So I hope that now that we will also start the conversation along with the one on gun control over what to do about this.

MARTIN: And it is important to note, and this is also something we're going to talk about, we don't really know if there's been a diagnosis in this case. We don't really know the extent to which the young man here, Adam Lanza, who has been identified as the shooter and later took his own life, we don't know whether he had any diagnosis or not or what his interactions with the mental health system were. But you know, to that whole question about guns, Maria Cardona, you've been writing about this and talking about this. Not everybody sees this incident as a reason to limit gun rights. Here's a clip of Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas. He's on "Fox News Sunday."


REPRESENTATIVE LOUIE GOHMERT: I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn't have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands, but she takes him out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids.

MARTIN: What's your take on that?

MARIA CARDONA: With all due respect to the congressman, he's just wrong. And I think the majority of the American people I think do understand that more guns actually means more violence. It doesn't mean more safety. And the stats bear that out. And I think that saying something like that, it is a knee jerk reaction to somebody who is afraid that now there are going to be additional legislators that are looking to control the guns.

And I actually think that's a good thing, that that should be the reaction. Because if you look at the stats, there are more places in this country that sell guns than sell groceries. And there are about enough guns in this country to give one to every man, woman and child. And to say that more guns will actually protect us more is just so nonsensical to me and I think to, frankly, a lot of people who have been looking at what actually happened. I think this is the tipping point, Michel. And I know that there has been so many tragedies that have happened thus far, but when you have 20 kids that were murdered point blank range with high capacity magazines, several bullets in each kid - and I cringe when I say that because I am a mother of two children of kindergarten age.

So this is something that just really hit to the heart of me and I'm sure millions of parents in this country. Something needs to be done and I do think that we're at a tipping point.

MARTIN: Michelle Bernard, I wanted to ask you, because you've worked over the course of your career with both Republican and Democratic, you know, lawmakers on various issues. And you know, maybe it sounds counterintuitive, but I have to wonder whether in a way the - does the push on this, on gun control, in a way cause some people to dig in their heels?

I mean it's pretty clear that, you know, the administration is all but saying if you don't do something, I'm going to do something.

BERNARD: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I'm going to act within the limits of my - whatever my executive authority is. And there are some people who would argue, does that make it actually harder to do something bigger? What's your sense of that?

BERNARD: And my sense is in talking to many people on the right, many conservatives, there are people who obviously - everyone looks at this as a horrific tragedy, but there are people who, for example, would take sympathy with what the congressman said, that we referred to a moment ago and believe, well, you know, this is going to make things worse. You know, there are people who have issues, that go out and have guns and I need to be in a position to be able to defend myself. But again, the question you have to ask yourself is, are more guns going to make it better or are they going to make it worse?

MARTIN: Well, what is your sense about this congressman, Mr. Gohmert, from Texas? Where is he in the kind on continuum of opinion on this? Do you feel that his perspective - is he the tip of the iceberg of people who actually have that point of view and maybe aren't willing to express it? Or do you think that he's actually a minority within his own caucus? What's your sense?

BERNARD: No. I think he is probably the tip of the iceberg in that there are many people, many conservatives and people who, you know, who very, very strongly believe in the right to bear arms, that feel exactly the same way that the congressmen do, but they don't want to say anything publicly. Because how can you say something publicly like that in the wake of the mass slaughter of 20 young children for no reason whatsoever?

MARTIN: Viviana, thoughts here?

VIVIANA HURTADO: Yeah. And I think, really, what it comes down to is political will and leadership. I want to say, you know, I'm asking myself cynically what's next. You know, what it is going to take, if not the lives of these 20 innocent children? And the thing about it is, there's some really interesting reporting in the National Journal as well as the Cope Report that looked at the math and the politics.

And the fact of the matter is, as far as gun control is concerned - you can also apply this to other big issues that are ahead of us like immigration - you've got to look at House congressional districts. And the fact of the matter is, there are few so-called fish out of water - Dems in GOP strongholds and the other way around.

And so what I really think it's going to take as far as leadership and political will is sustained political outrage and pressure.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of leadership, let's show some leadership on an issue that hits close to home, which is our role on this as people in the media. And there has been some discussion about this. First of all, there were a number of factual errors in the initial reporting, although they were later identified - they were later corrected pretty quickly - but identifying the wrong man.

For example, Adam Lanza's brother Ryan was misidentified as the shooter. You can imagine just how awful that was for him. And then there were a number of errors, like it was identified that the mother worked at the school and that's how he gained access to the school. That's not true, you know, at all.

So I just have to ask. Viviana, I'll start with you on this because you've been part of the so-called old media and you're a blogger too. Do you have any feelings about how the media - is there something the media should be thinking about in terms of how it handles situations like this?

HURTADO: Ouch. I still have whiplash. I mean I'm all over the map as far as the media reaction is concerned. Yes, I know what it's like to work a breaking story. And the pressures of a breaking story are extraordinary. Yes, they got it wrong. We have to look about it, you know, the use of unnamed sources as well has been a huge issue.

As well as this 24/7 media culture that we live in. I mean I'd like to just let every breaking reporter story know that chances are the people - your viewers, your readers, the people who are following you - are following you and not your competition. So take some of the pressure off to be right even though your whole context is pressuring you for you to be right.

One more thing. This is not a Lifetime movie, and I think that's part of the problem of our media culture, is this over-dramatization of really this magnitude of horror which I can't get my mind around. You're not part of the story, and by crying on set - and this is a little bit controversial because we are humans before we're reporters - but, you know, by crying, by making the story about you, I think it takes away from the real hard questions we need to be asking, motivating our leaders to be leaders. And just one last quick thing. Social media was able to rectify a lot of the wrongs.

MARTIN: We are talking about the important story from Newtown, Connecticut last week, with Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of the Wise Latina Club; Melinda Henneberger, political writer for the Washington Post. Also a blogger, she oversees their She The People blog. Democratic strategist Maria Cardona and Michelle Bernard of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics, and Public Policy. That's a research group. So we've got kind of a split panel here, like half journalists and half blogger-commentators but people who kind of really work outside of it. So Melinda, I'll give you the next crack at these. You have a complicated reaction to this and you've been writing about this too.

One of the things that interests me is, you know, Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist who's done a lot of work around violence and violence prevention, working with victims of violence, he was on the program earlier this week and let me just play what he said about the media coverage overall.


DR. CARL BELL: It seems to me that the more we report that this sort of an assault weapon was used, that this person had this kind of bulletproof vest, that this person entered the school this way, that gives other people who are depressed and suicidal and want to take a whole bunch of people with them the knowledge on how to pull it off.

MARTIN: Now how do you respond to that? You know, other journalists I've talked to about this say you know what? We love our First Amendment the way other people love the Second. But what about it?

HENNEBERGER: I disagree with that. I don't think that anyone has to read the coverage to think, gosh, I think I'll wear a bulletproof vest. I also think that practically speaking what are you saying? We can't communicate about the biggest tragedy going on in our country? I don't understand what he'd be prescribing.

Yes, there were many problems with the coverage, but I think within that we need to differentiate, first of all, you cannot help a law enforcement source telling you the wrong name. So I don't think there's any shame. It's a terrible thing to have happen and I certainly feel for the brother of the shooter. That's awful.

But I don't know what the prescription would be on that when you've got the source telling you - law enforcement, trusted source saying the wrong name. All you can do is shout from the rooftops when the second you know that you were wrong. The other way in which we need to differentiate is when people talk about the sins of the media, we're not this one big blob.

I mean, I think there's a lot of difference between, say, cable commentators and people in print. So I really - a woman was telling me the media this, the media that the other day and it turns out she was talking about Pierce Morgan. And I said, you know, I'm not in the same business as Piers Morgan.


MARTIN: Yeah. She's talking about the host of that...


MARTIN: ...late night discussion show who - well, that's a whole other...

HENNEBERGER: Yes. That's him. Yeah.

MARTIN: Don't get me started with that.



MARTIN: Host in the same sentence as me, but don't get me started. So the two of you who can - you engage quite often with the media...


MARTIN: ...but I don't know if you - Maria, what do you think about this?

CARDONA: I think this is such an interesting topic because I actually get criticized quite often when I go on the air and people think I'm a journalist and they say how irresponsible of you. You're telling your opinion. And I'm like, yes, that's exactly what I do. I am not a journalist. I don't pretend to be a journalist. That's exactly what I do on the air.

BERNARD: So I do think that it is the issue of people perhaps not understanding the different roles of political commentators, bloggers - and I do think that there is sort of a murky space there - and journalists. And I think you add to that Twitter and Facebook where individuals are exerting their opinions as well.

CARDONA: A lot of times you see journalists looking at what the citizenry is reacting and use that into their stories. And so it becomes this sort of murky blob. And I don't - I don't blame the public for not really understanding what everyone's roles are. And, you know, I try not to get upset but I do try to define I'm a political commentator. I'm not a journalist. And this is what my role is.

MARTIN: Michelle Bernard.

BERNARD: Yeah. I would say, I mean, as a political analyst also, you know, for cable television there is a difference but, you know, I have to say as somebody who sat back and watched a lot of the coverage, I would - journalists have a, I believe, moral obligation to report the story. People need the information.

As the mother of two young children I would also suspect that many parents across the country did what I did, which was after a few hours I just turned the TV off. I couldn't watch it anymore as a parent. It was emotionally destructive.

But also you don't want your children watching it. But it doesn't mean the media shouldn't report on it. Turn the TV off. Turn the radio off. Or change the channel.

MARTIN: You know, I think it's a very difficult dilemma in part because I think we're also in an era of, you know, crowd sourcing information. And you wonder whether the kind of expertise that might actually shed light on this issue is out there but doesn't have access to the official, you know, channels.

I mean, I think, you know, could it be that the person who really has the answer to this question is some junior faculty person in some really small community college someplace and that they actually know but because they're not hooked up with some big prestigious institution the only way that they get found is that they cast the net wide for information.

CARDONA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: On the other hand, you know, the fact is there are ethical guidelines that people - we do change our practices in response to circumstance. For example, the whole reporting on the race of an individual unless it's strictly relevant was something that was an ethical guideline for many years. People said you don't just willy-nilly report on race unless it is relevant to the subject at hand.

Why is that? Only certain people's race were being reported. Hello.

HURTADO: Or interviewing children.

MARTIN: Or interviewing children.


MARTIN: Or interviewing, you know, children.

HURTADO: Even with parents' permission.

MARTIN: Well, but then again, there are an awful lot of...

HURTADO: This is Viviana.

MARTIN: Excuse me. There are a lot of class issues involved too in this whole concept of privacy. I mean, how many stories have I done where I was swallowing hard and didn't want to knock on that door? But when I did knock on that door somebody was happy to see me because they felt invisible.

CARDONA: Yes. Yeah.

MARTIN: Until somebody showed up.

BERNARD: That's right.

MARTIN: And I have to say there's a lot to this. But we only have a minute left and we do want to leave on something of a happy note. I did want to ask if you all have any holiday wishes. Do you mind if I ask? Maria?

CARDONA: Well, clearly in the wake of what happened on Friday I just wish for everyone to really take a deep, hard look at this and, to Viviana's point, to have the political courage to do something about it so that this never happens again.

MARTIN: Melinda?

HENNEBERGER: I too would hope that Congress would come back in the next year and decide to get real, get talking, and get some solutions going. And realize that the American people would really appreciate that.

MARTIN: Michelle, very briefly.

BERNARD: Yeah. I am hoping that for all of the families of the victims that they are able to find peace this holiday season.

MARTIN: Viviana, final word, briefly?

HURTADO: Ditto. And I am praying for health for our country, as well as my own.

MARTIN: Those are all good wishes. Thank you for that. Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief of the website The Wise Latina Club. Michelle Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. That's an in independent research group, a think tank. Melinda Henneberger is a political writer for the Washington Post and runs the She The People blog.

Maria Cardona is a contributor to CNN and Mamiverse.com and a Democratic strategist. They were all here in Washington D.C. Happy Holidays to you all. Thank you so much.

HURTADO: Thank you so much.

CARDONA: Happy Holidays.

BERNARD: You too, Michel.


MARTIN: Coming up, when rap legend Run from the group Run DMC decided to go from rapping to preaching, he took MTV along with him.

REVEREND JOSEPH RUN SIMMONS: MTV became my pulpit. I don't have a church where I am the pastor of a big congregation but the world became my congregation.

MARTIN: I sit down with Reverend Run for a Wisdom Watch conversation about music and faith. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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