Children should be interpreted and not heard

The Georgia shooting is sure to inspire another torrent of clueless media tea-leaf reading.

Published May 20, 1999 5:30PM (EDT)

Immediately after an act of violence, there is a blessed and brief moment of lingering senselessness. As I start this article, Thursday morning, little is known about the boy who shot up a high school in Conyers, Ga.; even as I type it, details are coming out; by the time you read it, very likely, we will know, yet again, exactly what is wrong with America: his clothes, his parents, his music, his weaponry, his school, his movies, his elected representatives. (Or, of course, the refusal of the media to suppress news of school violence to avoid copycat incidents.)

It was only minutes after news of the shooting broke that news outlets started turning to Conyers students for their voices and details. What was the kid like? "He always talks in class, and he's always disturbing people." Yet, "He seemed quiet. He'd never do anything like this." But of course, "We weren't surprised." Cable-news reporters reached out to teens in Georgia and even in Columbine for quotable, Trench-Coat-able details: Who were his friends? What were his interests? Why is this happening to your generation?

It's good to see reporters going to high-school students for 411 on their schools, of course. But there's a limit to how much input the popular media discourse will accept from kids, as a curious, semi-coincidental report on CNN Thursday morning reminded us. The results of a CNN-Gallup poll of teens following the Littleton shooting showed, among other things, that kids largely thought students themselves were responsible for school violence -- that, for instance, taunting of students by others is a major factor in these incidents, rather than pop culture or government policy.

"The kids themselves," we heard, "look at other students, not at external factors like gun control, the media and so forth."

What?! Don't these punks read the newspapers? Are we expected to believe that they feel they and their peers should take responsibility for their own actions? That if one of them shoots up a lunchroom -- or conversely, tortures a classmate so severely that said classmate busts into dad's gun cabinet -- said teenager just might be more responsible for the consequences than Charlton Heston or Gerald Levin?

What is this country coming to? If schools aren't teaching kids to blame others for their own misfortunes and moral failings, what the hell are they teaching? How will these children survive in today's society if they don't know how to shunt responsibility onto formless external monoliths?

The reporters and commentators who will pick over the events in Conyers will be glad, of course, for any inside information on the logistics of the shooting and the musical tastes of the shooter. But when the students themselves give interpretations of the events that are more mature and accepting of personal responsibility than their professional adult interpreters', don't expect those to be reflected in the after-blather.

We've seen this before, of course, especially in the aftermath of Littleton. Reporters turned to students, often with comical results, to get the inside skinny on their violent classmates, their schools' social systems, their record collections, what have you. But once the kids have provided fodder for talking heads to apply their preconceived agendas to, it's time for the kids to put their heads down quietly in their foxholes. Thus on the day of the Littleton shooting, Columbine students were peppered with questions about the Trench Coat Mafia, but were largely ignored once they started protesting that the media were ludicrously inflating the role of one school clique among thousands.

Our chatterers have a few set responses for questions like this -- blame guns, blame entertainment, blame both -- and they're not particularly interested in hearing new ones, even from the kids at the front lines. (Given that the Georgia shooting coincided with a gun vote in the Senate, gun-control advocates quickly made the link, and if the past is a guide, their opponents will be quick to look for evidence in defense.) They may, one or all, be right, wholly or partly, but it would be easier to credit them if they actually entertained the beliefs of kids who are actually willing to believe they aren't the mindless pawns of forces beyond their control.

But that's a childish belief, I suppose. You're truly an adult when you know enough to believe in bogeymen.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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