"Resistant to meaning": CNN, Fox & MSNBC struggle with a story that defies the coverage pattern

Stephen Paddock is not one of the usual suspects. And that left the cable news media puzzled as to how to proceed

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 3, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

 (FOX News)
(FOX News)

The problem is that Stephen Paddock didn’t fit the pattern.

Paddock was not brown or black, had no obvious affiliations with any political movements, religious groups or terrorist organizations.

Paddock was not a member of an economically or culturally marginalized group. He was 64, white, retired, a millionaire with no criminal record — not even a traffic ticket, cable news viewers were told time and again throughout the day on Monday.

Paddock lacked the usual Internet trail as far as the media could discern — no Facebook page, no Twitter threads, no obvious postings to message boards or participation in threads. His neighbors describe him as quiet. His own brother says he sent their mother massive boxes of cookies.

No stranger to the Las Vegas strip, Paddock was a high stakes gambler. Yet headlines declaring him to be "no angel" or speaking to a "checkered history" did not emerge on Monday. He legally obtained at least some of the 23 firearms recovered from his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, as well as the 19 additional weapons found at his home 81 miles way in Mesquite, Nevada.

As of Tuesday evening nobody knows the reason why Paddock pointed a series of automatic or modified semi-automatic rifles at a crowd of some 22,000 people attending a country music concert on Sunday night, raining hundreds of bullets down on them at a furious clip. And in the first day of coverage, reporters and pundits on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel were visibly  flummoxed by this mystery.

“I wish I can tell you this is the last time I'm ever going to report to you about the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, but I cannot tell you that,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper, as he opened Monday’s telecast of “The Lead.”  “I wish I could report that lawmakers are huddling right now to try to figure out how to do everything they constitutionally can to keep these weapons of mass murder out of the hands of violently insane individuals who will use them to harm innocent people.  But they are not doing that.”

Tapper conveyed his frustration evenly and with a reasonable level of frustration at having to walk through the beats of an all-too-familiar tragedy. But that was early in the day, and Tapper is a journalist.

Contrast this with Sean Hannity’s “very, very important” opening monologue for his Monday night Fox show, which predictably informed us that “the left has no shame!” before ranting about NBC’s Tom Brokaw, a tweet Hillary Clinton shared about silencers, and a CBS employee’s idiotic and heartless post that rightfully got her fired. The actions of a single criminal should not affect millions of gun owners, but the statements of these and others portray the viewers of the opportunistic left. “The media, Democrats, have rushed to politicize this tragedy in an absolutely despicable display,” Hannity brayed. “ . . . Shameful!”

At least some aspects of a mass shooting can be forced to fit the pattern.

Early coverage followed the structure as one would expect, revealing details as they emerged and pausing respectfully to convey the miserable toll upon Las Vegas and the 59 families who lost loved ones. But from there. . . well, MSNBC’s “Christopher Hayes aptly summed up the challenges presented by the case, saying “the fact pattern of today . . . feels like an earthquake or a tsunami, in some ways, because it’s resistant to meaning.”

He went on to explain that if Paddock were connected to ISIS, a rumor law enforcement officials refuted after the group initially claimed responsibility, “there’s a neat conceptual category, there’s a sense of political rhetoric, and there’s going to be a bunch of people saying, ‘This is what we have to do to defeat ISIS.’”

ISIS, or any other terrorist organization, would have made unraveling Paddock's motivation so much simpler. The 24-hour news cycle knows exactly what to do with mass murders committed in the name of terrorism, even when the allegiance of the perpetrator does not fall under the government’s definition of terrorism. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, for her part, spoke with New York Times reporter Rukmini Maria Callimachi and at that time did not rule out the involvement of ISIS.

Even if he is found to be part of the organization, however men like Paddock are still “lone wolves,” anomalies. A quiet guy who listened to country music. People of color who are extremists, you see, impugn the motives of entire groups of people.

Authorities have questions about how much Paddock’s girlfriend Marilou Danley knows. She was overseas while her lover was committing mass murder in Vegas. She's also a Filipino-born Australian. On Monday Greg Gutfeld of Fox News’ show “The Five” wondered aloud if she could be connected to ISIS, but reporter Trace Gallagher knocked the wind out of that musing right away.

We will never know if Gutfeld would have asked that if Danley had resembled Nicole Kidman.

But give him credit for attempting to follow the pattern. He simply wanted to build the perpetrator’s profile in the way he's been taught by, for example,  gleaning details from social media postings. Such things are instrumental in helping pundits create narratives that are often partially fictionalized at first. All Danley’s Facebook page indicates is that she photographs well and was very comfortable with telling the world how much she loves being a grandma (Mind you, this was before authorities learned Paddock wired $100,000 to the Philippines a week ago).

In the midst of this, profiles of heroes emerge reminding us of the human capacity for courage and generosity in the midst of violence and chaos. This is a necessary and welcome part of Monday’s coverage avalanche which, for much of the day, consisted of montages of chilling cell phone footage taken by survivors while fleeing for their lives. The audible tat-tat-tat of rapid rifle fire served as background noise as survivors such as Russell Bleck calmly recounted his experience to news outlets.  “It was a battle zone,” he told Fox News’ Shepard Smith, “like nothing you can even process in your brain.”’

Another survivor, Bryan Hopkins, remembered turning to a friend with whom he hid in a freezer and saying, “Everything is going to be OK.” To which his friend replied, “No, it’s not.”

Usually psychologists are called upon to make snap diagnoses about the killer’s “mindset” but, being a rich white guy with no record of psychological instability, forensics specialists and security experts pulled the weight of recreating the logistical how and why of the event.

By mid-afternoon it became obvious that such enlightenment was not forthcoming, leading cable news to skip along to the stage with which they’re most comfortable: partisan screaming matches.

Fox News gamboled through the pattern’s checkpoints at a predictable clip, beginning with Smith’s even-keeled reporting the details of the event as they emerge, adding at one point, “So, many of you appear to be dabbling in conspiracy theories on this. The FBI is warning us they believe there is one shooter. And he is dead.”

From there Fox seeded the field for rancor as Dana Perino echoed Sarah Huckabee-Sanders’ declaration that resurfacing the need to discuss gun control hours after the worst mass shooting in modern history was inappropriate.  Fox even procured a “good guy with a gun” spokesmodel in Big & Rich performer John Rich, who told the story of handing his gun to an unarmed off-duty Minneapolis police officer who was a patron at his bar, Redneck Riviera. Rich said the officer asked him if he was carrying, “I have my concealed weapons permit and I said, 'Yes, I am armed.' He said, 'Can I have your firearm so I can hold point on this front door?'"

This came up again during “The Five” as Jesse Watters screamed down Juan Williams’ attempt to broach gun control . . . but only after suggesting that perhaps, in the future, snipers should be posted on the perimeter of events with large crowds.

This, at least, fits a pattern the pundits have down cold. When all else fails, stir up divisions and use the blunders of a few to tar wide swaths of people on the opposite side of the political divide.

The nightmarish crime Paddock committed upon the families and friends of the 59 dead and 527 wounded, and our collective sense of safety, is the top story regardless of the tenor supplemental coverage takes. But without that pattern the media was left shrugging or vamping, in the cases of CNN and MSNBC, or in Fox’s case, attacking with increasing levels of ire and absurdity.

On MSNBC Rachel Maddow launched into her program wearing an expression of vexed frustration as she listed the large number of gun shows in the Las Vegas area, a segment that would be alarming to anyone unfamiliar with Vegas and Nevada’s general atmosphere of loose regulations and excess. “Maybe there was a gun show around now,” she said after asking how Paddock was able to bring “an armory’s worth of high-powered rifles into a civilian space like a hotel room at the Mandalay Bay Casino.”

“ . . . It’s a reasonable line of inquiry, from a distance, until you look at real gun culture and the what it’s manifest in a place like this.” It made for an unnerving entry into her show and is precisely the kind of reporting that drives some gun owners crazy.

On the other hand, tracing the plunge in empathy and civility from the beginning of the day to “Hannity” really is an incredible journey. We could start, perhaps, with NBC News’ anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw stating the obvious about our refusal to have a meaningful national dialogue “that we can have in a calm and reasonable way” about gun control on “Today.”

Brokaw, who led with saying, he has owned guns all of his life, said “No other Western nation has the number of gun deaths that we have in America, and we need to talk about it.

He went on to add, “We can’t have that conversation because it immediately becomes so emotional between the gun owners of America who are protected by the NRA, and other people who are saying there ought to be a more reasonable middle ground. I’m a gun owner. I’ve got a closet full of ‘em in Montana, but I don’t have one of the AR-15s. I don’t need ‘em, because I’m not going to be shooting that kind of thing. But almost all my friends out there have that kind of weapon.”

Cut to Tucker Carlson later in the day: While speaking to Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, who declared he doesn’t believe in gun control, he asked, “We don’t even know the basic answers to the questions of why this happened. Does it seem a little premature to you to wade right into a complex debate like gun control within hours of this happening?”

Cuellar agreed, of course, pointing out that such carnage — inflicted on hundreds of people from a man 32 floors up and many yards in the distance — could have been inflicted by a plane, a knife truck . . . “Or,” Carlson helpfully pipes in, “a pressure cooker.”

Conservative commentator Tammy Bruce added her two cents to the pile by guessing that the problem could very well be prescription drugs. Which she doesn’t know, of course, but it’s definitely not guns, which nobody should be talking about. “It immediately divides,” she said of the gun control debate.

At one point Carlson said to Cuellar, “It’s just when people come out immediately after an event like this, without knowing any of the facts, it suggest to the rest of us that they’ve been kind of waiting for the opportunity to push a pre-existing agenda on the country, and it makes people really nervous. Can you see why?”

Yes. It makes people who peddle division for ratings very nervous, especially when their pre-existing agenda cannot handily explain why a wealthy man who fits their target viewer demographic would arbitrarily commit mass carnage on American soil.

Carlson went on to observe that there’s something going on in American society that’s leading to these happening with more frequency. It has nothing to do with “guns,” he said, but it has everything to do with attitudes.

“This is exactly what Americans are tired of,” Bruce said.

Certainly not the far-too-frequent wall-to-wall, predictably structured coverage of mass shooting

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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