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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rolling Stone Article on Von Maur Shootings

This article seems to be opening some fresh wounds around Omaha.

Mark Boal of Rolling Stone writes this piece on the kid who opened fire on Von Maur last year. Basically, his premise is that the national and local media basically did some bare-bones reporting on the story, and he is going to swoop in and save the journalistic day.

The result is an article that goes into painstaking detail of this kid's life (and in some instances, too much detail--see the part about this kid's mom cheating on his dad. I think someone has been reading too many adult sites or something.). There certainly is some journalistic merit to this article, and you can tell that Mr. Boal did some pretty serious reporting.

However, this comes with the price of some heavy arrogance and typical excuse-making.

First of all, much of the details to the story of the shooter that appear in this article have been reported on ad nauseum by the Omaha media. It was known he had an abusive early childhood, known that he bounced around several homes/clinics, and known that neither of his parents would take him into their homes. It was known that he did drugs, tried to sell drugs, made threats, was violent as a child, etc.

The biggest difference, I suppose, is that a lot of these stories did not come with the first-hand accounts and very awkward pornographic details that come with this story. So, uh, thanks--I guess. But to imply that the local media didn't hack it with the follow-through on this story is the height of arrogance and irresponsible. Perhaps, Mr. Boal, the local media was not inclined to include some of the uncomfortable "down and dirty" details because:

A. They were not absolutely necessary to paint an accurate picture of what happened in this kid's life, and
B. The local media knows its market in Omaha, and
C. Maybe they were focused on the victims of the tragedy.

Which leads to the second, and most important, point of contention: the other premise of this piece.

I understand that it is important to study the backstory of events in order to better understand them. And I think it is important to understand this story, to understand what physically and sexually abusive childhoods do to people as they grow older--and the tragic conclusions they may sometimes bring. These are things that we, as a people, need to better understand so we can all eventually become better parents, brothers, sisters, friends, social workers--just better members of society in general.

However, this article does not seem totally interested in that. In fact, this article seems much more interested in making excuses as to why this happened. And they go as follows:

--Bad parents.
--Bad step-parents.
--Psychological drugs.
--Corporate ownership of farms.

Among others. I think my favorites are "globalization" and "corporate ownership of farms." Apparently because there's not enough shucking jobs available in Eastern Nebraska, high school drop outs can't get jobs. Or something. And this, of course, leads to too many video games, which leads to too many drugs, which leads to 8 people dead at a department store.

Of course, I'm exaggerating. However, the point is that this article goes beyond painting a picture of a wounded and fragile kid who went over the edge one day. No, everything needs an answer these days. It can't be that the kid is just crazy. It has to be someones fault! The father, whose wife did not want the kid to live in their house because he had threatened to kill her on too many occasions (how selfish!). The mother, who apparently had slept with too many people. The State of Nebraska, who dared to eventually put the kid out on his own after it was deemed that he had made enough progress to get on with life. The family farmer, who couldn't compete with corporate farms and offer him a job. (By the way, I don't mean to harp on this point too much, it is just insulting that Mr. Boal apparently thinks that jobs in agriculture are the only option for high school graduates and/or drop outs--after all, it's not like there are any other industries or jobs available in Nebraska.)

There is merit in reporting on the story behind the story. It is a crucial function of journalism. But to write off the hard work of local reporters and to disregard the pain of a community and--most importantly--the pain of the victims families and friends in the name of writing a in-depth piece about an extremely troubled young man and the failings of other people and institutions that led to a tragic event is, to put it lightly, unfortunate. The tone of the article--that of "I work for a big important magazine, and I'm going to teach this cow-town a lesson on what they all screwed up"--is insulting.

Hopefully Mr. Boal will be learning a lesson through all of this, as well.

**EDIT: I did forget to mention one thing that I absolutely agree with Mr. Boal on: it was borderline tragic how quickly this story--and so many important, tragic stories--leave the national news cycle in the matter of a couple of days anymore. It is a weird and sad existence that we live in that we've developed such a national case of ADD that we cannot focus on terrible events that effect our fellow Americans (and others across the world) for more than a couple of days.

*Steps off soapbox*

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Well said. I agree with you on many of the points in your post.

A few things I might add:

--I think the details in Boal's piece are indicative of the type of publication and audience he is writing for. I think of the HBO comparison on this one. To paraphrase Chris Rock in his Tossed Salad Man routine, HBO is able to touch a bit deeper on issues than say 20/20. I don't think anyone would expect Omaha's local media to put out a piece like this.

--Color me naive, but I didn't really catch the author's arrogance in a "I'm doing this story a favor that the small market of Omaha didn't have the capacity of doing itself." kind of way...at first. But after reading your comments and then re-reading the article, I can see it sneaking its way into the argument that the press let the story die after they heard of the mental health/McDonald's related business.
I'm typically a blog lurker but I felt compelled to comment on this article. Obviously the graphic details disturbed me, but the part that upset me the most was the writer accusing Omaha of forgetting about the tragedy immediately after the event. The reponening of Von Maur after the shootings was not about making up for lost profits for the holiday season. It was about helping a community move on and cope with what they dealt with. Knowing a Von Maur associate, who was at the store during the shootings and right next to one of the victims, I applaud Von Maur for how they handled this situation and how they treated their employees and victims' families. Also, less Mr. Boal forget about the reopening ceremony of the event where wreaths were placed at the store's entrance in memory of the victims. And the fact that hundreds of people made a memorial outside of the store with signs, snowflakes, cards, posters, etc. and that, once those items had to be removed, they were boxed up and placed in large plastic tubs and kept - not thrown away - shows that the support Omaha showed for the victims, the community and one another, was not taken lightly.
And if he'd go to the store now he'd see a plaque hanging in the store listing the victim's names.

I don't know a single person who drives by or goes into Von Maur and doesn't remember what happened that day. Boal's comment of "it was forgotten" might be the most inaccurate line in his story. Period.
Good job, Wendy. I thought the exact same thing, that statement was absolutely incredulous for anyone in Omaha at that time. That store was reopened to move on, not to forget, and certainly not for commerce's sake.

From what I understand, Von Maur handled the situation with class all-around and with respect for the victims and their families, and they have always treated their employees well.
Good points, Wendy and Pete. To add on to Pete's point about Von Maur treating their employees well, they actually paid all their employees--full or part-time--what they would have been making if the store would have been open during that time.

Von Maur is a stand-up, family owned company that we should be proud to have in our community.
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