Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Please don't talk about me when I'm gone"

In a New York Times article, the gunman who killed twelve people in Aurora, Colorado, James Holmes, was described thusly by the chancellor of his undergraduate university, UC Riverside:
“I think he was kind of quirky, just the way you expect smart people to be,” the school’s chancellor, Timothy P. White, said in an interview on Saturday. “Quirky in the sense that he probably had a wry sense of humor. He kept to himself more than he socialized. But he was social. He wasn’t a hermit or an introvert. He wasn’t a loner.”
It sounds like this man was groping for a way to describe Holmes as a weirdo without getting the university sued.

UC Riverside has over 18,000 undergraduates at present. Are we supposed to believe that its chancellor just happens to be familiar with its most notorious recent graduate? Anyway, if White had any idea who Holmes was he wouldn't have had to theorize about Holmes' sense of humor.

Tim, this is why big institutions have spokespersons. Let them do their jobs.

But White isn't the problem, though he contributed to it. The problem is that articles that try to read the tea leaves of an attacker's life after the fact are useless. They seek reasons and explanations: laudable goals, but impossible to attain. Time-limited reporters scurry about looking for anybody who might have known the subject, digging for factoids that can be put together like ill-fitting puzzle pieces.

The reporters and their news organizations call the result a portrait of the killer. That's a lie: what they have is a connect-the-dots sketch. The reporters have an image of the subject in mind before they start interviewing; what they want from the interviewees is a dot that can be fitted into that mental image. That's why all these reports sound the same, and also why they're universally a waste of time.

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