Media coverage of Whitman sets example not worth following

Alexander Chase

On Aug. 2, 1966, Texas’ newspapers had to break the news to their readers that a student and former Marine had killed 13 others from the tower of their flagship university. On their shoulders rested the responsibility not only to detail what happened, but to analyze why and to memorialize those we lost. 

When those papers hit newsstands the next morning, they left the powerful impression that Charles Whitman, even more than his victims, was the one in need of memorializing. 

“Charles Joseph Whitman was a good son, a top Boy Scout, an excellent Marine, an honor student, a hard worker, a loving husband, a fine scoutmaster, a handsome man, a wonderful friend to all who knew him — and an expert sniper,” ran one of the Austin American’s several features on him, entitled “‘Everyone’ Loved Him.” 

The San Antonio Express called him both an “undistinguished” and “good” marine in separate pieces, and ran quotes from friends and family describing him as “a young man more mature than most others his age” and “a person whose reputation was impeccable.” The Dallas Morning News ran a story featuring quotes from his former roommate describing him as an “All-American Boy.”

Dozens of other publications ran similarly laudatory pieces, many before news broke in most Texas papers on Aug. 3 that he had admitted wanting to shoot students from the top of the Tower in a visit to Student Health Center psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Heatly and that his autopsy revealed that he had a small tumor pressing on his amygdala. Before any publication had any definitive reason to explain why Whitman had “snapped,” they took great care to paint him as a role model in readers’ minds.

Advances in neuroscience and further examination from the Connally Commission have made it plausible to at least question whether Whitman was in control of his actions. What remains problematic is the continued application of narratives like these that paint white shooters as people incapable of committing the acts they have.

Time and time again, the phrase “quiet loner” is affixed to these shooters. Following James Holmes’ attack on a theatre in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 dead and 70 others injured, he was described as one, as well as a “smart kid” and “great at chemistry.” Despite UC-Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger’s admitted history of attacks on women, he drew the label one as well. Thomas Mair, the man believed to be behind British MP Jo Cox’s murder was “quiet, polite and reserved.” 

Perhaps most glaring was the New York Times’ description of Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Dear, calling him a “gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent attacks on neighbors and women he knew.” While they eventually removed the word “gentle” from this particular piece, the consistency of these sorts of descriptions from dozens of respected national outlets threatens to undermine serious discussion of violence against women and gun control.

This language stands out even more clearly against the backdrop of black victims of police violence, from whom the label “thug” is inescapable. While Charleston shooter Dylann Roof was a ”sweet, painfully shy” loner even as he had a previous criminal record, Trayvon Martin’s wearing a hoodie was enough for some commentators to blame him for his own death. 

While it is undoubtedly true that the parents of these shooters and their friends have described them as good people, it is dishonest to lean heavily or even exclusively on these descriptions and bury petty crimes, while flipping the script for black victims.

Whitman’s example is one no person, healthy or not, should follow. Both mental healthcare and media coverage of shooters have improved over the past 50 years — opinion pages across the country are working to call out discrepancies like these — both fields have great room to improve. As we continue the slow process of healing from Whitman’s shooting, a part of that must involve being honest about the circumstances. No victim’s family heals any faster knowing their child was murdered by an honor student. If we are to leave behind the wounds we have already suffered, we must also leave behind this practice of discussing how we suffered them.

Chase is a Plan II and economics senior from Royse City. He is the Editor-in-Chief. Follow him on Twitter @alexwchase.