Friday, September 19, 2008


In the horrific school shootings that this nation is plagued with, one of the most difficult problems victims’ families have in overcoming the tragedy is dealing with the manipulation of our grief and sorrow—the word games played by the media, by the schools, and by people in positions of authority.

The parents of Angela Dales, the only student to be killed at the Appalachian School of Law, joined forces with the three wounded students to file suit against the law school, the president of the school, and professor Rubin. Once the suit was settled (out of court), a news conference was held in the Dales’ home. What ensured was an almost surreal hour or two. The press was not concerned with the dead student, or what would happen to her young daughter. Those subjects never came up.

What the reporters zeroed in on was the money; how would the surviving students spend their portion of the settlement? The press stories that appeared never mention anything about a young child left without a mother; never bothered to inquire about the psychological problems the child faced and continues to face. The press never ventured to ask, “How did the student get the gun or why the school ignored the danger signs?” It was all money, money, money.

One of the few weapons in the arsenal of the dead student’s family was our words—our written words. When the press engaged in “lies of omission,” we tried to use our own words to get the word out. But, when our words pressed too hard, pointed to possible cover-ups, or posed questions about why people in positions in authority failed in their responsibilities, several newspapers declined to print what we wrote. One major southwestern Virginia newspapers indicated it would not print what I wrote because I lived more than 50 miles from the city of publication—not because my writing was poor or because what I had written had no merit, but because of the distance of my home. That same newspaper printed every word the murderer uttered even though he was sitting in a jail cell far more than 50 miles away.

Another Virginia newspaper declined to print an article (which appeared in two other newspapers) because it made elected officials look bad! Has that newspaper ever heard of investigative journalism? The real problem was that my article pointed a finger at a politician the newspaper had endorsed.

Following the publication of my book, A Question of Accountability: The Murder of Angela Dales, a Virginia newspaper was going to run a review of the book to coincide with a book signing. The book signing was on a Saturday; the editor told me the review would run the same day. That review has never appeared. There are indications that influential backers of either elected officials or the law school did not want a review or any publicity that would increase the sale of the book—therefore, the paper caved in.

So much for freedom of the press and freedom of speech! Interesting that all the papers involved are ones who beat their chests about family values and rant and rail about the bias of the liberal media. But when a family suffers one of the worst calamities that can happen—the murder of a daughter or son—they turn their backs. All I can say is, “I wish we had more of the liberal media and less of the fair and balanced conservative stuff.”

The families of the Virginia Tech tragedy face the same “lies of omission.” Virginia Tech apparently has systematically tried to manipulate the words used to deal with the tragedy. The school’s “lie of omission” was to substitute pablum for the truth.

The Washington Post reported on August 4, 2008, that within a week of the incident, a school memo shows that university officials had developed a media strategy centered on three main passages: “We will not be defined by this event,” “Invent the future,” and “Embrace the Virginia Tech family.” The Post cites school documents as saying that getting these phrases out would help the healing begin. In fact, they should have said that posting these words would allow the scarring to begin.

No matter how much the media, the school involved, or elected officials try to play word games, there are no words or phrases to cover up the truth about these horrendous crimes. Word games are the most vicious form of lies of omission because they are a calculated effort to prevent the truth for being made public. In the case of Virginia Tech, the three main messages about the school should be “the bungling way the school handled the shooting,” “the damage done to the school’s present and future reputation,” and the “betrayal of the Virginia Tech families—not just the families of wounded and killed, but all the families with ties to the school.”

If the Washington Post article is true, Virginia Tech’s attempt to manipulate the truth and hide reality is a desecration of the memories of the victims. I wanted to throw up when I read the article. A fitting tribute to the memories of the shooting victims would be for the school to dedicate itself to getting at and telling the truth about the events of April 16, 2007. The truth, coupled with the adoption of rules and laws to prevent future school shootings, would be a far better tribute to those slain than candles and plaques; certainly far better than “lies of omission.”
The actions of both the Appalachian School of Law and Virginia Tech in the wake of their respective shootings are pathetic and certainly not a commensurate pursuit of the truth or freedom of speech. One is left wondering, what standards do Virginia’s institutions of higher learning have?

No comments: