On Jan. 22, 1987, a disgraced Pennsylvania politician named R. Budd Dwyer called a news conference in Harrisburg, gave a speech to a roomful of reporters, then pulled out a .357 revolver and shot himself in the mouth.
At the time, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no World Wide Web at all. But there were TV cameras in the room, and although none of them were broadcasting live, multiple stations aired the entire incident unedited on their nightly newscasts.
Today, you can easily find that footage on YouTube, and what I can say to you is this: It is a horrific scene of bloodshed that you may have a hard time ever shaking from your memory.
I thought of this on Wednesday morning, after watching TV news footage showing reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward being shot to death during a live broadcast in Roanoke, Va.
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Sadly, people getting killed as a result of gun violence is an everyday occurrence in the U.S., but what elevated this particular tragedy is that a) as with Dwyer, the moment was captured by a TV news camera and b) it happened to journalists. As such, the media dove into coverage with more passion than usual.
Several that I follow on Twitter posted footage of the newscast that devolved into chaos. These were interspersed in my feed with tweets from journalists urging people not to watch the video.
Some news sites featured the clip prominently alongside their reports – most notably CNN, which offered it with a disclaimer: “The following report contains graphic content. Viewer discretion is advised.” Major outlets including the New York Times and the Washington Post provided links to it.
Then something much more shocking and horrifying landed online. The suspected gunman took to Twitter and posted two videos that revealed a first-person view of him walking up to Parker, Ward and the woman they were interviewing, raising his weapon and opening fire.
I caught wind of this almost immediately thanks to reporters covering the story. (One actually tweeted a link to the videos on the suspect’s Twitter account, then posted two tweets essentially saying “Holy cow, check out his account,” then posted two more essentially begging people not to watch it.)
Twitter and Facebook quickly suspended the suspected gunman’s profiles, but before they did, several copies of his videos were uploaded to the Internet.
Look, we can’t change our world. We can’t go back to 1987, to a time when anyone outside of Harrisburg, Pa., would have had a hard time getting their eyes on a copy of a local newscast.
Social media is what it is, the news media is what it is, and for now (and probably until the end of time), you have instant and unlimited access to stuff you might not always be glad you saw.
But it’s up to you whether you want to see it. You can click, or you can not click.
I’ll admit: With R. Budd Dwyer, I’ve brought up somebody whose name would probably never have been in the Observer again, and I’ve tempted rubberneckers with his grisly train wreck of an end.
But it’s up to you whether you want to see it. And it’s also up to you if you want to see the fates of Alison Parker and Adam Ward.
Whether it’s in good taste or not, the press has the freedom to put that before you.
But it’s up to you whether you want to see it. My advice – if you’ve made it this far without being subjected to them – is: Skip it. Otherwise, the shooter gets to have the final say on how Parker and Ward are remembered.
May the victims rest in peace.