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The Discovery Hostage Coverage

September 1, 2010

This is a bit too long to tweet, so let’s see how it fits in here.

As I’m working, I’ve got one ear on a video feed from DC’s News Channel 8 about this evolving hostage situation at the Discovery Channel headquarters. I appreciate that when nothing is happening, they’ve gotta say something to fill up their time, but some of this is just terrible.

For a while they’ve been chattering about the physical layout visible from the news helicopter. Of course, despite saying they’ve lived in the area — one of them noted that “this channel’s coverage really kicked off when [his] wife called me to say a police officer shooed her back away from the building” — they obviously have no idea about the area. I’ve heard them talk about the Metro going through during the rebuilding of downtown Silver Spring, when I know for a fact there was a metro station in the area long before that point. I’ve also heard them talk about looking “up Georgia Avenue towards the beltway” when the view is clearly towards the south.

Then they got word that the suspect might be Lee, and they hopped on some of the more hyperbolic language in his “manifesto” (cf. Communist, cf. Unabomber), which essentially makes a negative-population-growth case, and guessed he may have indented to attack the day care center. Of course this makes for a great story, despite the fact that it ignores the content of his previous Discovery protests which dealt with much more pedestrian anticapitalist rhetoric.

But what really got me was when one of the anchors let fly with this one: “I’m not a doctor — [random Dr. Drew name-drop] — but I’ve known and heard of some bipolar people. I don’t know anything about his mental state, but he might be bipolar and has just snapped and lost control.”

See, here’s the problem: the implication is the old saw that mental illness is inherently dangerous. Even ignoring the fact that he says himself that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about — either in general or in particular — we’re left with the insinuation that, you know, mentally ill people sometimes just snap unpredictably and take hostages. This background idea in the public consciousness provides justification for preemptively locking the mentally ill away so they don’t hurt normal upstanding people.

Waving him off (with no evidence) as mentally ill also means that we can just say he’s crazy and don’t have to respond to the content of his assertions. To be clear: I don’t agree with radical anticapitalist positions — even when they’re raised peacefully — but I believe they can be honestly refuted without casually dismissing them as signs of mental illness.

With absolutely no evidence — which they admit — News Channel 8 advocates not only labeling this man as insane, but also using that (unjustified) label on the one hand as an explanation for his actions and on the other hand as a reason to dismiss him entirely. Both are incredibly demeaning to the community of mentally ill people who are nothing like whoever is inside the Discovery building.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Hunt permalink
    September 4, 2010 06:19

    I have the same opinion of public and media consideration of mental illness. My brother has schizophrenia, and our entire family has lived with the implications of the common mis-perception and stigma. There are a lot of reasons people do crazy things and only sometimes are they correlated with mental illness. The times that they are, however, cause big impact in the news, so people think that anyone who kills indiscriminately is Charles Manson. The unavoidable fact, given the incidence of serious mental illness, is that if every person with a serious illness were violent, we’d be awash in blood.

    As for the message, Lee most definitely took the wrong approach. Unfortunately he and Ted Kaczynski have done untold damage to the messages they were attempting to forward. That they adopted such obviously futile and ineffective tactic is probably the best evidence that they are not (were not) mentally sound.

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