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Does Media Coverage Influence Mass Shooters?


Now, we are bringing something new to this program, but it will be familiar if you followed a program I hosted previously called Tell Me More, and it was a listener favorite. It is The Barbershop. That's where I checked in with a group of interesting writers, talkers and thinkers about some of the top stories of the week. Well, The Barbershop is back with some old friends and a new twist. Joining us in our Washington, D.C., studios, our NPR editor and Tell Me More alum, Ammad Omar. Hello Ammad.

AMMAD OMAR, BYLINE: Hello, how are you?

MARTIN: Good. And a familiar voice to many, the political junkie, Ken Rudin. Welcome back, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: I was told this is Car Talk.

MARTIN: No, wrong...

RUDIN: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: ...Wrong.

RUDIN: Sorry.

MARTIN: And here's our special twist - ladies will be in the house this time around. Danielle Belton, associate editor for The Root is with us now. Hi, Danielle.

DANIELLE BELTON: So excited to be here.

MARTIN: Especially because we can now ask Ken to leave.


RUDIN: You always do that.

OMAR: Unless you brought some of those buttons.

MARTIN: Exactly. Well, unfortunately, we have to start on a serious note. We do like to have fun in The Barbershop as those who've heard it know. But today, we do have to start today with the Oregon shooting. And I want to start by talking about a challenge to the media laid down by Oregon Sheriff John Hanlin.


SHERIFF JOHN HANLIN: I will not name the shooter. I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.

MARTIN: Ammad, do you want to tell us a little bit more about the logic behind that?

OMAR: Well, yeah, I can see the logic behind it because some of these mass killers in the past - if you remember Vester Lee Flanagan, who killed the cameraman and the journalist in Virginia, he mentioned Seung-Hui Cho, the Va. Tech shooter, who in turn mentioned that he respected the Columbine shooters. So we've seen time and again with these mass shootings, they often say they're inspired or motivated by some of these past killers. So I can see the logic behind it. Now, practically speaking, keeping a name like that under the lid is probably pretty hard to do. The father of the suspect came out and talked about it after the shooting last week - this week, rather. And, you know, it's out there on social media, so practically speaking, I'm not sure if it's that easy. The medical examiner also did, but, you know, I can see the logic.

MARTIN: Danielle, where are you on this? In fact, The Root has been doing some very interesting reporting on the background of this young man, the fact that he expressed, for example, anti-black racial animus when, according to your reporting, it seems that he's biracial. So, I mean, there are some interesting things to know about him. What's your take on this?

BELTON: I feel like you can't avoid it. I mean, someone's going to write about it; someone's going to talk about it. As long as there's a hunger in the public for this information, it's going to come out. You'd have to change the entire American society's feelings about celebrity culture, infamy and crime to get people to not want to talk about this.

MARTIN: Well, why isn't this censorship, though? I mean, why isn't this a matter of a state official, Ken, telling us what to report and what not to report? I mean, isn't there a kind of - another - other side to this that we might want to think about?

RUDIN: Not that I could see. I've never seen a public official anywhere take an event so horrific like this and say we are not going to tell you the whole story. And the media's job, of course, is to say this is the whole story, and the name of the shooter is part of that story.

MARTIN: Well, Ken, on another note, though, in a press conference, President Obama said he intends to politicize this because he says the response or the lack thereof is political and that nothing is going to change unless the politics change. What do you think about the way he has framed this, and what do you - how do you think - I'm going to ask you for an opinion here - how do you think the public's going to respond to this?

RUDIN: Well, I think the public responds the way we always respond to these things. We're horrified; we point fingers; we say Congress must be done; we say - we have this tremendous sympathy for the families of those whose lives were taken. And then two months later - two weeks later - we forget about it. Congress does nothing. Look, 20 schoolchildren were killed - were gunned down in Newtown, at Sandy Hook. Congress did nothing. And when they tried to do something six months later - four months later, it couldn't get anything done. So Congress is not going to act. And of course, now that the conservatives pushed out John Boehner and they're flexing their muscles in the House, the last thing they're going to do is bring in an anti - a gun-legislation bill.

MARTIN: OK, OK. But what I'm really asking you, though, about is this question of the president saying - he's basically doing a challenge to the public. He's saying you need to do something. I'm giving you an assignment...

RUDIN: How many times - the only thing that changes is his hair has gotten more gray. How many times has President Obama said something must be done, Congress must be done, the public must be involved?

MARTIN: OK, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And if you're just joining us, you are listening to our new Barbershop roundtable. Our guests are Ken Rudin, who blogs as the Political Junkie, Danielle Belton of The Root and NPR editor Ammad Omar.

Well, I want to talk a little bit more about this and how this has touched the presidential campaign. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - of course, he's a presidential candidate - has gotten some blowback for saying the words stuff happens while responding to questions about the shooting at a forum on Friday. But it's also put a spotlight on Democratic contender and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' record on gun safety issues. So, Ken, you mind talking a little bit about that?

RUDIN: Well, he has a very - to be charitable - a mixed record on guns. He supports the assault weapons ban. He supports, you know, things like that, but he also voted against the Brady bill. He'll tell you that coming from a very rural state like Vermont, where there are a lot of hunters and not a lot of gun violence, he says - and this is what - almost like an NRA argument - but Bernie Sanders - who was elected to Congress with help from the NRA in 1990, I should point out - but he says that it should be a state-by-state issue, that what New York, California, the urban cities must deal with is not what Vermont has to deal it. You know this issue will come up in the October 13 debate.

OMAR: Yeah...

MARTIN: Ammad, what do you want to say about this?

OMAR: Yeah, I spoke with Simone Sanders, who's Bernie Sanders national press secretary for the 2016 campaign. And she kind of - it seemed like rolled back some of those state's rights things. She did say that it's a state's rights issue. But she said Bernie is in lockstep with President Obama on this. She pointed out that he did vote for the Toomey-Manchin bill that was proposed after the Sandy Hook shooting. And as far as the Brady Act goes, she really stresses that the issue for Sen. Sanders on that was the waiting period. She says it was just an arbitrary waiting period that wasn't a background check thing. So it seems like they've got that message lined up, they're ready for it and they have some answers.

MARTIN: Well, you know, in the time we have left, I want to talk about one other thing, which is the Black Lives Matter movement, which has targeted several of the Democratic candidates, Danielle, since the campaign began. This week, the group got some strong support from somebody who's not even running for anything at the moment. Here's what Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren had to say in a speech about racial equality on Sunday.


SEN ELIZABETH WARREN: It comes to us once again to affirm that black lives matter, that black citizens matter, that black families matter.

MARTIN: Danielle, what do you think about this? I mean, it's interesting now that you're getting a lot of mixed reaction to the Black Lives Matter tactics from interrupting political rallies and threatening to protest and things like that. So what do you make of this? Do you think this is important?

BELTON: This is really important. I mean, you can quibble with the tactics, but the sentiment is real. How African-Americans are feeling in this country around policing, around mass incarceration are real. And the movement has really tapped into that, so what Elizabeth Warren had to say was very necessary. The fact of the matter is that Democrats need the African-American vote. They need African-Americans to turn out at a rate of, like, 80, 90 percent in order to - you know, to retain the White House. So she had to say something; someone had to say something in order to still appeal to that - the base.

MARTIN: Ken Rudin, what do you think about this? Do you think her saying Black Lives Matter is important? Is it significant that she said it? I mean, in a way, does it take the sting off the other candidates who've gotten some pushback for not saying it?

RUDIN: No, it probably makes more people want Elizabeth Warren to run for president. But all the other Democratic candidates have their problems. When Martin O'Malley says well, all lives matter, that was not the answer. When Bernie Sanders said, well, I've - I marched with Dr. King, that's not the issue either. What Elizabeth Warren does is she combines the income inequality, the right to vote and police brutality in the same context of how it effects the African-American community.

MARTIN: OK. But, you know, Ed Rogers, who's a well-known political figure on the Republican side, a former deputy chief of staff, says that actually, this is bad for Democrats because it, you know, gives those swing voters - the independents, if you will - another reason to think well, you know, you might think the Republicans are too far to the right, but these guys are too far to the left and gives them an opportunity to give their guys another look. What do you think about that?

RUDIN: Well, there are tactics - we saw that on national TV when Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley were both interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters. That obviously got a bad blowback, and also, when people are talking about the kind of disruption that we saw in previous decades, that could be a problem as well, a blowback to that.

MARTIN: Ammad, any final thoughts on this?

OMAR: Yeah. I think as far as Sen. Warren goes, it might even just kind of stake out a place, kind of establish a position that other Democrats might have to kind of shift towards, kind of even though she's not in the race, she can kind of freely go out and say it. And we'll see if other Democrats kind of follow her lead. But it's also going to be interesting to see how the Republicans respond once the race really gets into full swing. We've seen some differing viewpoints from various Republicans. Ben Carson said black lives do matter, and we need to figure out how to make things better for black people. And we've seen some animosity towards the movement from that side as well, so that'll be something to watch.

MARTIN: Is there something to watch there? I wonder, have they really engaged? Have the Republican candidates really engaged? When I saw there was one question at the first Fox News debate on this. Have they really engaged on this yet?

OMAR: Here and there, especially after the incident with Senator - with, sorry, Martin O'Malley. Some people kind of criticized him for how he responded - same thing with Bernie Sanders, so we'll see how they respond. I'm sure it'll be a thing.

MARTIN: All right, we got through it. We did it. Ammad Omar is an NPR Editor. Danielle Belton is associate editor of The Root. Ken Rudin is the host of Ken Rudin's "Political Junkie" podcast. Thank you all so much for joining us. They all joined us here in Washington.

RUDIN: Thank you, Michel.

OMAR: Thank you, all right.

BELTON: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Thank you for coming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.