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Death and A Double Tragedy: The Failings of Talk Radio

The following entry is written to help us gain perspective on some of the media communications concerning the recent, horrific crimes perpetrated in Mount Vernon, New Hampshire.  It is shared with you to contribute to a larger discussion that exists and should be engaged on a wider basis about media and violence and how we engage the very important issues of violence, crime and youth in this society.  It has been written knowing that this event is still fresh in the hearts and minds of people not only in the communities of New Hampshire, but all over the country.  Communities, families, youth and individuals are still shaken, questioning their safety, their family security and their lives.  It is out of respect for these communities, families, youth and individuals that this entry is submitted for public review. 

This writer is aware that this situation is still fresh in our consciousness and emotions and that the issues that arise from it are important to have in correct perspective.  This discussion about the media handling of this crime is considered key in our on-going search for clarity, resolution and healing.


It happened a couple of sundays ago….and became the talk of the region and beyond.  A “home invasion” planned and executed by four teens in New Hampshire, raising so many important issues of life, death, safety, class, youth, eldership, respect, gender safety, gendered violence, parenting, schooling, community, isolation, culture and more that eludes my consciousness at this moment.

The Keene Sentinel, in their Oct.8 edition, reported how fear has changed to anger in the community, how, at least from one person’s view, “’s just pure evil.  There’s no explaining it” (page 6).  Another story presented the “what ifs”, questions of the closeness to other families and homes, the unbelievable nature of this sort of violence in this sort of neighborhood.

Tragedy of this sort is devastating and life-altering among many other undesirable things and calls for clarity, understanding, communal embrace, patience and a rededication to compassionate ways of thinking and cultural production.   Tragedies such as these call us to look deeper inside ourselves to find not only the sources of these pathologies, why they exist in some and not others, but also to find the cultural practices that remediate and decrease, if not extinguish,  these abominable acts.  These tragic occurrences, that rend heart from heart, family from family, wife from husband, sanity from mind, challenge us to the core of our being and ask us to deepen our embrace of all that is good, right and loving in us and in the world.

We have seen countless numbers of situations from the Manson killings to Columbine to Virginia Tech, to Mount Vernon and so many other places and situations, where we are deluged with story after story about “why” and “how” and the human cost of murder.  The media have provided us with information, perspective (to some degree) and statistics that at once assuage our fears and feed them, too.  Particular dialogues and commentary in recent talk radio have created a dynamic that makes this recent local New Hampshire tragedy doubly reprehensible.

As I drove back and forth to the university last week, I scanned a few radio stations as usual on my ninety minute trek and was challenged by some of the problematic commentary from WTKK 96.9FM.  The discussions seemed to raise so many questions, suggesting so many of the underlying problems of a society out of touch with its own humanity, yet afraid to look itself in the mirror for clarity and honesty and the hope that grows from an intimate knowledge of the resilience of the human spirit.  It seemed that in the face of tragedy, talk radio was unwilling to be a real resource, relinquishing what I would call its responsibility to be a voice of reason, strength, maturity and hope.

So many things were said, but touched on in shallow form and content, seemingly as if they knew not of what they were talking about.  Issues of cities vs. the country/suburbs and what our expectations were of these geographical icons, issues of class, implied race,  capital punishment and parenting all came out in a confusing collage of emotional melodrama that at times chafed in juxtaposition to ads for bedding or hot-tubs or some such product.

Statements made on different days by different hosts seemed to validate the same message of emotionalism and sensationalism beyond compassion, of individualism beyond communal embrace and quick, violent reactionism beyond that clarity that comes from true introspection.

On October 7, while listening to Michele McPhee’s show, grand statements were being bandied about vilifying “shoddy  parenting” as being the cause of the four youth embarking on their violent excursion.  Through caller after caller and in her long tirades (well-matched to the horrific nature of the subject), the story of the failure of the suspects’ parents was told over and over.  Through the hours, the story deepened as new ideas about why the parents of these four young men and many parents in general fall short of even modest expectations for what is necessary to raise a socially-stable child.  There were more indictments than solutions, it seemed, as the stridency of the discourse narrowed the  possibility for real understanding and engagement of a core problem in USAmerican society – the support and development of youth in this culture.

Further into the evening’s exhortations, a 19-year-old woman called in, claiming to know or know of one or more of the suspects in the murder and assault case.  This woman, named Sarah, reported that one or more of the suspects had been seen days before the crime with newly-shaven heads and shouting “free Manson”, a reference to Charles Manson, a famous (infamous) and convicted murderer still serving time in prison for his crimes.  After claiming “breaking news”, McPhee correctly asked about the responsibility of the school in reporting such behavior in a world now informed by the dynamics of such events as the Virginia Tech and Columbine shootings.  McPhee correctly pointed to the necessity of communal diligence in the face of such pre-crime behavior, cleanly missing the point that she was beginning to contradict her earlier statements that this kind of crime was solely or mainly about shoddy parenting.  McPhee was now suggesting, and rightly so, that there is a larger social responsibility in being able to monitor and mediate such anti-social behavior, especially where there are gross and outward displays such as those reported by Sarah.  Caught up in her own momentum, it was apparent that clarity was giving way to narrow-minded sensationalism.  It always feels good at first, but never produces enough of anything good to move us beyond the emotionality of our own pain.  And pain is what we should feel when someone is killed, when ANYone is killed.

Which raises another issue embedded in the histrionics of the show.  There were many statements made by host and caller alike of the “unbelievable” nature of this crime.  This kind of crime doesn’t happen in places like Mount Vernon.  Clearly, this kind of crime is not endemic to Mount Vernon or other small towns.  The assertions came through that violence was not a product of country or suburban life, that violence in urban areas is one of the reasons WHY people move to places like Mount Vernon or other rural or small population communities.  Inherent in this type of account is the suggestion that crime and murder lives and breeds and belongs in cities, not like Boston (still a parochialized, balkanized and idealized municipality), but like Roxbury and Dorchester, like Detroit and Newark and Southeast Los Angeles.  Nowhere in this broadcast was there a clear critique of class and race that would have led us to a better understanding of the dynamics that actually create crime and violence and why crime and violence SEEM to be so prevalent in some areas and not in others.   McPhee and others suggested that there was no connection between the crimes in Roxbury (talk of which seems to be relegated to 1090AM) and that in Mount Vernon, that these crimes were urbanized, other-ized types of crimes that just don’t, can’t and shouldn’t happen in their midst.  There was a suggestion that different kinds of people, different than McPhee or her listeners, commit these crimes, that these suspects were merely and heinously thugs that have no social or private history or precursor, but their own evil lives.  These suspects are connected to nothing, but themselves and at best they are exhibiting behavior that, in essence, belongs somewhere else….somewhere more crowded, dirty, with less trees and less people who go to parent/teacher meetings and Whole Foods stores.

What McPhee and her show were communicating and cultivating was the idea that these crimes happen in isolation of the larger, prettier, more well-veneered society.  McPhee and her callers refused to engage deeply the inter-connected nature of urb and suburb, the connection of youth to adult and that the failure of  a set of parents is a failure of the community of parents.  We take credit as a city, state or nation when we look to our own wealth, opulence and material comfort, how many Lexi or Prii we have in our driveways and the sanctity of our greenspaces and cleanliness of our streets.  We claim that communally.  It is a part of our national jingoism, our fevered and immature patriotism in the face of the international mirror, often held up to us by the fingers of “third world” hands or the walls of “developING” nation political structures.  When we see the social structures fall apart in these difficult and painful ways, we rarely take it on the chin as a national pathology or even a localized , but, if not epidemic, then endemic disease, at least from the standpoint of what is said in the media.  The show made no suggestion that when OUR children CONTINUE to display anti-social and dangerous and pre-criminal or pre-dangerous behavior, we ALL have a responsibility to notice, report and address these issues BEFORE they become criminal and dangerous and horrific.

McPhee’s statement that the crime had “nothing” to do with video games, television or even society itself is short-sighted, narrow, misleading and without the support of well-known research.  Though cultural production such as television programming and video games do not directly cause (generally speaking) crimes and violent behavior, as powerful effects theorists would suggest, they do contribute to cultural and personal beliefs about violence and crime, of gender, race, class and access, of personal and social expectation, to our levels of self-esteem, agency and ability to project ourselves positively or negatively into our lives, communities and futures. The violence and anti-social behavior which seems to drive television programming and many popular video games informs us and validates ways of thinking and being in the world, creating cultural space conducive to such behavior.  Though there may be no television shows regularly lionizing Charles Manson, you can not get through one night of prime-time programming without hundreds of violent and anti-social acts across all the available channels.  When I ask my students of media studies and history what the predominant communicative icons of peace and love are in the media I am met with the same stark silence each and every time.  Our culture validates the presence of violence in its midst and its dominant media are the standard bearers of this presence.

On another note, the presence of the extreme validations of violence can be easily seen in a music industry that regularly supports violent and anti-social concepts in its lyrics.  McPhee was notably surprised to learn of the presence of “horrorcore” rap, a musical phenomenon that aggrandizes concepts of violence, death and gore and reported as a form of music listened to by the Mount Vernon crime suspects.  Brought to the forefront by another heinous crime allegedly committed by one of horrorocore’s adherents, Syko Sam, a Washington Post story about the crime highlights the “us” and “them” discussion that plagued the talk radio landscape here.

“FARMVILLE, Va., Sept. 23 — The town is what its name suggests, a little crossroads burg swaddled in crop fields and pastureland for miles around. God and country-western span the radio dial, the main street is Main Street and the barber sells Lucky Tiger flat-top wax.

Folks in Farmville figured that the town, population 7,000 or so, was their haven, an oasis of quiet sanity in what a lot of them think is a mixed-up, gone-to-hell world. That was before a 20-year-old Californian, a rapper of luridly violent lyrics who billed himself as Syko Sam, alighted in their central Virginia community last week.”


The iconic descriptors of “little crossroads burg swaddled in crop fields” and “pastureland” and “main street is Main street” and “God and country-western span the radio dial” suggest that those of concern in Farmville didn’t see this one coming.  With all due respect to all of Farmville’s citizens, it seemed as though it would have been extremely difficult to extricatethemselves from their own cultural momentum to see the onset of such a horrendous occurrence in which four people were bludgeoned to death.  But someone in Farmville invited Syko Sam into their “oasis of quiet sanity”.  And it seems it was their youth.

Neither Syko Sam (officially named Richard Alden Samuel McCroskey III and reportedly  from California) or the four youth suspected in the crimes in Mount Vernon created horrorcore rap or the idea of murder, but those ideas lived strongly enough in the core of our young minds and hearts in these country oases to manifest themselves in the hands of their youthful perpetrators.

What the above iconic descriptors also suggest is that the people in these communities and beyond expect that crime belongs more comfortably somewhere else and that, at least as far as the WTKK talk shows are concerned, there is no credible connection between the communities that the crimes happened in and the suspected perpetrators who lived in those communities.  There was in no plausible way any culpability on a larger social level for the creation and support of people who might do horrendous things such as these.  The problem here, from the media’s standpoint, is that the discourse leads us to scapegoating and disconnection, rather than to a place of introspection and social responsibility, where the initial impulse beyond our natural and correct reproach of the behavior is remedial on the larger scale as opposed to punitive in the narrow scale, as indicated by McPhee’s call to put these young men to death.  Admittedly, those same impulses to murder those young people might exist in us all and the feeling that we should is supported by our deep sense of hurt in the face of unconscionable acts such as those perpetrated in Mount Vernon, Farmville OR “inner-city” ANYwhere.  We can kill these young men tomorrow, but will we have figured out what the pathological precursors are that exist in our society that validate and support this behavior beyond our own ability as intelligent, somewhat empowered and concerned adults to abrogate?  What, in our hearts and minds and intuition and research and spiritual knowing, is the key to preventing such growth and development of anti-social, anti-human and anti-life behavior by these or others so that this will not happen again or with such frequency?

These were the questions never asked by McPhee or Jay Severin, the next day.

Severin, host of a wildly popular talk show on the same station, did ask his callers to weigh in on the issue of capital punishment.  It is an important question, given that we, as a republic, execute many convicted criminals each year, so as a national aggregate, as a set of states “united”, we condone such behavior.  This sort of legally-sanctioned behavior ought to be looked into with patience, tenacity and diligence.  What if we find that our legal support of capital punishment is connected to the inference that violence is a practical and functional way of getting your national, state or privately-defined needs met?  What if?

Executions assuredly stop the back end of the crime.  That is clear.  That person can never commit a horrendous act again.  That is key to the discussion, but the larger issue is not the stoppage of the commissions of further crimes at that point in the continuum.  We have the technical ability to end the lives of every person in prison and beyond (weapons of mass destruction notwithstanding….and is the support of such creating socio-political culpability in the cultivation of violence in USAmerican life?), but when do we dedicate ourselves to eradicating the presence of violence in other pre-crime areas of cultural life and production?  When do we stand up as men and women and community and decry the high incidence of domestic, male-gendered violence and abuse and stop it?  When do we stand up as men and women in community and decry the high incidence of sexualized violence against children by men (predominantly…remember that even in the Roman Catholic church, where we also never saw the violence coming, it was priests – men – who topped the criminal ranks) and stop it?  Must we keep in mind that even McPhee and Severin would agree that victims of such heinous acts are indiscriminately peppered amongst the “criminal element” that lives and breeds ‘somewhere’.  So where in this talk radio melee do we come to clarity or true resolution?  If children are the fruit of the adult tree, how then do we conveniently assert that the youthful committors of heinous crimes have no connection to the tree that created that criminal fruit?  No, McPhee and many gate-kept callers did assert the culpability of the trees from which those four errant fruit fell.  The underlying and unstated problem truly lies in the nature of the forest.  If those young men or boys are “scum” as Jay Severin called them, then what does that say about the culture from which they come?  Is there no connection betweeen one tree and another? Do not their roots comingle in the social amalgam?  It is my assertion that we have a lot of root work to do and that, at least in these situations, for this story, talk radio failed us in getting to the root of our social responsibility, our own necessity to not only engage punishment, but engage youth and life and truth and how to support it and grow it in our young people, in their very spirits, beyond strident exhortations of being the “best and brightest”.  Do the “best and brightest” have no responsibility to the youth of the city, country or state or have they earned the right to sit in veiled conceit beneath their “Severin doctrine” laurels. If they do (and they don’t), then WTKK, McPhee and Severin owe them more than verbal banner ads for emotionalism and social separatism.  These subjects and stories and issues deserve more than passing disconnection driven by the need for higher and higher ratings.  Since when has advertiser satisfaction transformed itself into social invulnerability or safety from crime?  Not only the nature of the talk radio discourse, but the very nature of media-conglomerated and corporate, advertiser-dominated media are in need of real critique and overhaul if we are to seriously address the informational and emotional and social needs of a society that is still plagued with horrific and horribly frequent crimes like these that happen everywhere and, yes, anywhere.  It is not because these crimes only happen on the south side of Chicago, not because they just can’t or shouldn’t happen in Gloucester (as McPhee suggested in reference to another youth-crime), but because they happen AT ALL.  And these crimes are happening everywhere.   And if we are truly caring, intelligent and concerned adults, then we take responsibility for youth in our midst and beyond our midst if we hold the truth to be self-evident that this is a great nation.

We are a dysfunctional national family at best…but not without hope.

Talk radio, in this instance and many others as I have noticed on that station and not, has shown a keen ability to narrow discourse and breed a support of parochialism far beyond that of normal men, but who, in the guise of the talk show host, bring us  to a point of witnessing here, in the handling and packaging of this very difficult and painful story of death and the destruction of life, security, safety and happiness – and youth – a double tragedy.  We are witness to an awful commission of criminal behavior that behooves us to support the victims, family and friends with renewed and deepened compassion, love and vigilant engagement.  They are deserving of that as any victim of such a crime would be, no matter where they live.  We are also witness to the tragedy of a communications medium format that seemed unable to truly provide a deeper insight into the human dynamic of violence beyond their own predilection with feeding into the negative emotions that understandably surface when things of this nature occur.

The narrow discourse of this brand of talk radio obscures the growing presence and importance of rights-of-passage programs, youth leadership, spiritual and cultural intiation programs that immerse youth in the understanding and manifestation of the interconnective nature of human life and life beyond humanity, to all that is.  We don’t hear about men creating men from boys, women creating women from girls, adults in vigilant leadership in their communities supporting concepts of communal respect and personal responsibility beyond mere civics and citizenship.  Programs like the Sacred Fire community and the Rights of Passage Council and the work growing out of the programs of East Coast Village, amongst many others, many following forms of time-tested, indigenous cultural tradition that help youth (and adults) not only understand themselves better, but their place in the world, their communities and society at large and find a validation of their personal gifts, a real way to be seen and supported and then provide support as a caring, loving and empowered member of communal society, the goal of any enlightened nation

How talk radio has packaged this issue raises contradictions that exist between what is real and what we are comfortable with in our minds.  The contradictions in the apparent safety in the “country” or “suburbs” vs. the problems ‘inherent’ in the cities, “inner” or otherwise, obscure the responsibility that the society has in creating the very cities that it decries in its media.  This society created the cities and the kind of violence that cities and our deep-seated social pathologies engender.  It takes no newspaper reporter to know that those who support the social structures, corporations and cultural ideologies that create and support “city” or urban areas live in small towns and country homes, away from the hustle and bustle, nestled in their “oasis of quiet sanity”.  A focus solely on parents belies the reality that solutions lie in the communal dynamics of the society, not merely the personal family functionings of any young man, though the nature of such is important and undeniable.  If we simply kill those boys-trying-to-be-men, we will kill our very own consciousness of the resilience of the human spirit and consciousness of our neglected responsibility for youth and who they eventually become, not only as parents, but as interdependent, communally-empowered and supported adults, never satisfied to stop short of available solutions because of a band-leader only willing to play the catchy hook of a much deeper and harmonious song.

May our social values and our cultural, mediated communications be in harmony.

May the victims of violence everywhere  find love, support, resolution, closure, healing in the dawn of the new day, the dawn of a new embrace of and dedication to all that is good and correct in the human spirit.

May we find the courage to look into the mirror held up to us by the very faces and lives of the children we adults have created – our children.

Ukumbwa Sauti, Department of Mass Communication
Pierce Arrow Blogger

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