A local television news reporter and cameraman in Roanoke were fatally shot by a disgruntled former colleague during a live broadcast this morning. Their shooter then drove to the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and switched to a rental car that he had been parking there for a number of days, suggesting competent enough planning. Virginia State Police found him driving this rental car on Interstate 66 towards Washington and tried to pull him over; he fled, crashed after a short chase, was found by troopers with a serious self-inflicted gunshot wound, and was pronounced dead within hours at a Fairfax hospital.
This case is bringing out all the crazies, trolls, and asshats. The shooter was a black guy who had been complaining about racial workplace grievances, and his victims were white. If you’ve been around the internet, you can imagine easily enough what the racists are saying about this shooting and its implications for Whitey. The gun control crowd is making hay of its own, of course, as if this bloodshed could have been prevented by better policy in a country as heavily armed and as naturally violent as the United States. Some of the Fuck Whiteys have offered condolences to the victims in spite of their racism, apparently on the basis that racial discrimination in the workplace might be a mitigating circumstance for premeditated murder but isn’t really. It’s a bad idea to expect anything more refined than that from Gawker.
As Americans, we’re champs at making things about race so that we aren’t forced to discuss class. I have no idea what was really going on behind the scenes at WDBJ (I first heard of the station this morning), but I do have a rough sense of television newsroom culture, and I wouldn’t describe it as healthy. Maybe the shooter was an affirmative action hire who got in over his head. He sounds like a nut who got nuttier in times of trouble. I do notice that CNN has given him a mild form of the Nidal Hasan treatment, displaying a portrait of him looking somewhere between hangdog and angry next to photos of his victims with beaming smiles. The meta is useful in these cases. Hasan was notoriously shown in a black-and-white version of one of his color Army portraits. In this case out of Roanoke, the shooter is shown clearly without makeup next to a photo of the much younger deceased cameraman and one of the reporter in heavy makeup. His skin might not look so much worse than hers if he had gone full Jack Kennedy and put on the makeup for that shot, but it’s a moot point: CNN will inevitably pick the most ominous photo it can find of a shooting suspect and the most flattering ones it can find of his victims, and it’s far from the only news organization so unscrupulous.
The early accounts of the background of this shooting are pretty odd, too. The shooter is now known to the nation as Vester Lee Flanagan. Until this morning, he was known to the viewers of WDBJ as Bryce Williams. Any relation to Brian, perhaps? Brother by another mother? Brother by another network, certainly. It turns out that he once interned at KPIX, the San Francisco CBS affiliate that allowed Dave McElhattan to help raise me in my early childhood. It also turns out that he was a bit less easygoing than good old Dave, having been fired with cause from WDBJ in 2013 after he kept having temper problems around the newsroom, but with none of Jian Ghomeshi’s pervy smoothness. In 2000, he filed a racial discrimination suit after being fired by a television station in Tallahassee. Dude seems to have been pretty low-functioning, although he kept getting work in the industry from time to time. And the stage name: why did a station claiming to be in the news business go along with that nonsense? It’s one thing for Neale Donald Walsch to host a rock-and-roll afternoon show as DJ Bob White, but this was a fucking news station. There’s sort of an understanding between news stations and their audiences that they won’t use shady tricks. Television news producers use shady tricks all the time, of course, but putting an anchor on air under an assumed identity is awfully blatant. There’s a certain arrogance about it. The whole point of these outfits is to make themselves look anything but eccentric, and putting a troubled industry drifter on air under a stage name looks pretty fucking eccentric. There are usually appearances that news outlets aren’t telling the truth, but WDBJ wasn’t even trying. It literally didn’t tell its viewers who this guy was.
Maybe Jian Ghomeshi can return to the CBC as Robert Service McKenzie Trudeau Douglas, the ultimate Canadian. He won’t just make you choke up with national pride; he’ll make you choke. By the way, that’s still two fewer names than Kiefer Sutherland has, and probably a less made-up name than Dagmar Midcap. #TheMoreYouKnowEh
Speaking of Canadians, Messrs. Flanagan and Williams fell roughly halfway between Canada’s high-functioning British-born Ontario psychopaths Ghomeshi and Col. Williams and BC’s famous low-functioning psychopath Willie Pickton, lately known as Robert Pickton because he’s a serial murderer. There’s some weird combination of social proof and journalistic convention that determines whether a thug remains known by his preferred nickname in the press, is addressed by his full legal name in full journalistic glory, or is reassigned to his first given name. Russell Williams is still Russell Williams, not David Williams or David Russell Williams, but Willie is now Robert. (Lynn Majors, by any combination of names, remains Indiana’s sexiest male nurse.) As the Williamses go, Bryce lacked the lying smoothness of both of his brothers: Brian, in the news business, and D. Russell, in the murder business. He was that rare bird, a halfway-functioning murderer. Probably uninterested in women’s underwear, I’d guess; that sort of thing tends to happen at the extremes, and this headcase in Virginia was all too mainstream. He was able to hold jobs, but not for long. He wasn’t as marginal as he might have been.
One of the tragedies is that Vester Flanagan tried so hard to make it in a high-pressure business that overvalues appearances of propriety and wholesomeness. There are a lot of unbalanced, unstable people in newsrooms. Flanagan was one of the few who couldn’t figure out how to vent his foul temper in socially acceptable ways. The dealbreaker wasn’t that he was psychosocially abnormal; it was that he couldn’t keep up the appearance of being psychosocially normal. Few people can do so in such high-pressure, cutthroat environments. The ones we see on TV are the survivors. And if Flanagan was having trouble adjusting, who could he turn to for genuine help and advice? Newsrooms tend to be unhealthy environments. They’re too full of predatory Type A’s. They aren’t a good place for a troubled junior employee to try to work out all his difficulties adjusting and the likely resentment he’s facing as an affirmative action hire. Television news must be worse than print journalism, since it attracts people who are narcissistic enough to want to appear on television rather than just in print, and since it places so much greater an emphasis on superficial appearances. Print journalism can’t manipulate appearances so effectively because it has fewer appearances available to manipulate.
We’ll probably see tendentious comparisons to Jayson Blair in the coming days, but these will inevitably miss important points involving matters less sexy than racial preferences. Blair was a hot mess, an untested newjack in over his head in a surprisingly dysfunctional newsroom who caved under pressure and made up colorful details about veterans he hadn’t actually visited. This was in contrast to his Times colleague Judith Miller, whose bogus journalism helped get thousands of American veterans killed or ruined in Iraq over nonexistent weaponry. Blair didn’t get anyone sent to war. (Another Blair, Tony, did.) He merely caused great offense with his insensitive bullshit. He’s said to be an excellent storyteller. His mistake was falling back on his talent as a storyteller at an organization that prides itself on stating objective, provable facts with total accuracy. He hadn’t been hired by the Grey Lady to tell cool stories. He was no Karl Ove Knausgaard, on assignment to write literally, figuratively, and very tendentiously about shit. Blair was a journalistic equivalent of James Frey, the novelist who broke out onto the scene by misrepresenting his first novel as a memoir.
Vester Flanagan seems to have been an all-around mediocrity. He was mediocre and easily angered in a business that claims, in any event, to demand excellence and good self-control of its personalities. He made his trouble out to be about race, but he’s said to have been genuinely and intractably difficult, and he didn’t have the charm or star power needed to force his colleagues to tolerate that shit. It’s easy to imagine how there might be additional troubles for black employees trying to hack it in otherwise white newsrooms, but this dude had trouble that went a lot deeper than skin color. Notice that Al Roker is never out beefing with Whitey. It’s fair enough to say that Vester Flanagan was no Al Roker, and that this inferiority explains at least some of his teeming grievances.
It’s possible, too, that colleagues of his genuinely did him wrong. I wouldn’t put it past them, especially the front-of-the-house ones and managerial types, just on account of the nature of television newsrooms. Of course, it’s a lot harder to get a fair hearing for arguments that they mistreated him now that he’s famously martyred two of them on live television.