We’ve all heard by now about the bloody doings in Roanoke, Virginia: of how a disgruntled ex-reporter at WBDJ-TV shot and killed two of his former colleagues while they were in the midst of an on-air interview. My first thought, other than profound sympathy for the victims and their loved ones, was that this sounded like one more reminder that Paddy Chayefsky’s Network – which predicts on-air death as a ratings draw – is alive and well.
But my thinking evolved as I learned more about the behavior of Vester Lee Flanagan II, who went by the professional name of Bryce Williams. This was a man who was determined to be noticed. Not only did he fax to ABC News a lengthy diatribe spelling out his grievances but he also managed to videotape the actual shootings, then posted them on Facebook and Twitter, where they were seen by thousands before the accounts were taken down.
All of which reminds me of a book published by biographer and film historian Neal Gabler back in 1998. Gabler’s Life: The Movie begins by focusing on a movement he calls the Entertainment Revolution. Says Gabler, “the desire for entertainment—as an instinct, as a rebellion, as a form of empowerment, as a way of filling increased leisure time or simply as a means of enjoying pure pleasure—was already so insatiable in the nineteenth century that Americans rapidly began devising new methods to satisfy it.” If nineteenth-century Americans craved entertainment, how much more did it appeal to their mid-twentieth-century descendants, who could flick on their radios and television sets whenever they took the notion. And one of the century’s most popular political figures, Ronald Reagan, succeeded with the public because – as a professional movie actor – he knew just how to tap in to America’s love of stories with good-guy heroes and happy endings.
Though Reagan’s appeal was that of a man in a white hat, some seriously flawed human beings have also sought public attention as the leading actors in big public dramas. And, to a certain extent at least, the mass media have helped them make their case. Gabler points out that Timothy McVeigh, later to be convicted for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, was actively courted by news sources to tell his story. The result was a soulful photo on the cover of Newsweek; he also negotiated for the right to choose among such celebrity interviewers as Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw, with the program to be aired during a ratings-sweeps week.
Gabler informs us that “John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, had left a tableau in his hotel room—a photo of Judy Garland with the Cowardly Lion, a Bible inscribed to Holden Caulfield (the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye), a photo of himself with refugee children—that he thought would suggest a motive behind his crime. In short, he was providing a theme as well as an act.” And we learn that Arthur Bremer, who in 1972 would shoot and paralyze presidential candidate George Wallace, explicitly viewed himself as an actor in a film, “so much so that while stalking President Nixon, his initial target, he missed the chance to kill him when he raced back to his hotel to change into a black suit.”
Social media, of course, makes it all the easier to become an overnight celebrity. Now Vester Flanagan is just that. But of course he’s dead . . . and so are two journalists who were unlucky enough to cross his path.