Roger Ebert:

“The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. ‘Wouldn’t you say,’ she asked, ‘that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?’

No, I said, I wouldn’t say that.

‘But what about Basketball Diaries?’ she asked. ‘Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?’

The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. ‘Events like this,’ I said, ‘if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of ‘explaining’ them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1.

The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.”

-November 2003


Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Category: Film, Financial Press, Psychology

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

14 Responses to “Violence & Movies: Thoughts by Roger Ebert”

  1. Fred C Dobbs says:

    This post makes a very, very good point. The failure of The Media to exercise its discretion in reporting must play a role in causing unsound minds to commit some of the worst crimes is an abuse of the freedom of speech. Clearly, The Media doesn’t report everything, it does not have the time and resources to. It must necessarily cut some stories short and leave others out, altogether. But, in their obvious pursuit of eyeballs and the almighty advertising dollar revenue that ultimately lines their greedy pockets, the Dan Rathers try to bull shit us into thinking they, in their infinite wisdom and judgment, know what and are doing what is best for us. I suppose this comes with the destruction of societal standards everywhere one looks. The Media, in fact, the US, needs more Roger Eberts. Nice Post.

  2. albnyc says:

    Two thumbs up, Roger. Farewell.

  3. Mike in Nola says:

    The latest is that a psychiatrist warned the police of the Colorado shooter’s dangerousness:

    • mathdock says:

      Colorado has a must-report law for all mental health providers when there is evidence of imminent harm to self or others. If critical, the police are the first place to report, followed closely by other, relevant authorities. I knew that the psychiatrist, if she was going to keep her license, would have reported that day without hesitation. I’m glad that fact came out.

      Here is a case of the chain of reporting being broken. Just imagine if the police had done their duty as required by state law.

  4. louis says:

    Most good ideas are simple, rip @ the movies.

  5. RW says:

    In mass media it has always taken a certain amount of street cred to state an opinion honestly and, these days, it take more than a certain amount, it seems it can take all you have. Didn’t always agree with Ebert’s reviews but am glad he developed the moral authority to speak his mind and am genuinely sorry we won’t be hearing more new from him …but (always one of those) given the nature of media and distributed cognition I’m glad to say, in this instance at least, that I don’t think we’ll be hearing the last of him for awhile either. So no RIP, yet.

  6. hue says:

    the balcony is closed
    Jack Nicholson told Gene, “Harry Dean Stanton called me and said there were a couple of guys discussing movies on TV and they didn’t even look like they should be on TV.”

  7. Jbones2 says:

    Ebert’s writing/analysis on all topics will be missed. I saw this article by David Cay Johnston on the costs of the NRA’s “School Shield.” I wonder if this analysis would make NBC Nightly News:

  8. Richard W. Kline says:

    With regard to Ebert’s observation on contributing factors to mass murder incidents, the situation is more layered that that but fundamentally his thesis is accurate.

    The largest single impetus to these incidents is the massive coverage which they receive. While many who are seriously disturbed are not at all violent, most _are_ significantly suggestible. This has been studied, and documented over more than sixty years, and there have been attempts in the past to discourage the kind of media saturation coverage of these incidents as at present. After the Aurora massacre, there have been at least six spree killings or mass murders in a short period of time recalling them off the top of my head. That is neither a coincidence, nor the first time there have been copycat cascades. The Arkansas schoolyard shootings were part of one, for another prominent example. It’s difficult to imagine a media blackout on these kind of incidents. Nonetheless, the nature of the media coverage is at present terrible, and a national strategy is badly needed. What we really see from teh media is ‘shock and awe,’ of exactly the kind that elicits copycats. The way in which ‘media heads’ speak to an incident _can_ be shaped in a way to discourage this, if not to prevent it. If one is going to broadcast a message to the suggestible, it’s critical to present that in tones of a) “Don’t do it,” and b) “mediocrities to be shunned lose it like this.” Not ‘monsters,’ since many who go on spree killings think of themselves in such terms, so speaking of ‘the atrocity’ is to frame the act in an attractive fashion. It is irrelevant in the larger view whether the individual is _in fact_ a monster bya normative definition, just as it is trivial to anyone but the coroner what, if any , motivation was involved. The focus of media coverage should be on suggesting that almost nobody does this kind of thing, and those few who act out in such a fashion are miserable sad sacks. That is not the definition anyone wants to identify with.

    There’s a lot more subtlety to that approach, but we seriously need a national media strategy on this kind of coverage. Where Ebert is wrong is in the typical approach of seeing complex behaviors as mono-causal. Yes, news coverage is the largest _single_ suggestible factor in mass murders, but it’s not the only one. A pervasive media culture where ‘good guys use guns’ has an iterative impact. It isn’t just a question of ‘violence’ on TV, or ‘bad guys’ in the movies. Consider all the nominal heroic protagonists who succeed via pulling a trigger &etc. ‘Good guys shoot back’ is exactly the message which it is NOT in society’s best interests to have suggestible, deranged individuals hear on a nightly basis, as now.

    Moreover, it is plainly an acceptable outcome in American society to kill people who you believe are threatening you. Not to get away; not to involve third parties; not to deescalate, but to kill them. All that ‘stand your ground’ programming, and a great deal more. While we hear multiple voices of authority on this issue, it is abundantly clear that we give a great deal of permission in our society, more than in most, to kill people with whom we have a dispute. The fact that the killer typically ends up in prison for years or forever doesn’t diminish the message at all, that that person had _a right_ to slaughter their adversary. We’re not talking about ‘self-defense,’ which can be a plastic concept. More a ‘what would my friends think if’ kind of concept. And too many of them would think “Take the guy out.” This message is everywhere in our society, and those susceptible to it hear it. Others hear it, but have sufficient impulse to control to at least second guess themselves when push comes to pistol-pulling. But the suggestible wear down under that message.

    There are layers of implied permission given to mass murderers to act in our society. But that is the bias, all the permissions are to pull that trigger. There are few coherent inhibitions presented in volume instead, or even in counter to the permission to ‘take them out.’ I would argue that this implied bias to ‘assumed retributive violence’ is a greater problem in our society than the economic inequality, endemic financial corruption, and gross political dishonesty we also have to contend with as a society. And at present, we have societal messaging and support strategies to deal with none of them.

  9. BennyProfane says:

    He instantly went into my top 10 list of coolest people in the world when I found out he wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a Russ Meyer flick. Also wrote the screenplay for Who Killed Bambi, the, unfortunately, unfinished film Meyer was hired to make about the Sex Pistols by Malcolm McLaren.

  10. diogeron says:

    The piece reprinted from 2011 in Salon by Ebert, “Why I’m not afraid to die” is well worth the read. I’d post a link here, but am not sure it’s appropriate after reading BR’s excellent post a while back on consideration of eliminating comments, including the new (to me) acronym, GYOFB. Ha.

  11. wally says:

    If Ebert’s observation was correct, violence would forever escalate upward or nonviolence would eventually stamp out all violence… but neither is true. It is a fact of life that you have to take action to change situations and, even so, they are full of chance and randomness.

  12. 14e says:

    I agree with Ebert’s point. Like all people he comes at the issue from his life experience, and misses the bigger point. In my opinion, violent movies and media are like the chicken and the egg. What can be done to change the culture that celebrates violence and instant celebrity?