What is the price of fame?

By Mark Roe

Last Thursday at around 11 p.m., my two boys, 12 and 16, left the house to join a horde of teen and tween buddies at the 12:01 a.m. showing of the Batman movie in Marysville. At around 3:30 they got to the friend’s house where they were spending the night and texted us. It seemed just another mundane moment of parenting … until we woke up Friday.

I spent some of that day watching the news and counting my blessings. I reminded myself that despite the daily onslaught of atrocities and “Hunger Games moments” served up for our entertainment, the world is not inherently evil, nor are most humans who inhabit it. We do tend to slow down and look at car wrecks though, and so the demographic-driven news departments make sure we linger so their sponsors can sell us stuff.

Mayhem is money. I get it. But what is the price of fame?

There’s been murder for millennia. It hasn’t really increased; it’s just the marketing that’s new. Unfortunately, I think our demand may be driving the supply.

As I watched on Friday (Yeah, I watched. I won’t deny it) I just got more angry, not at the smiling young man whose face was plastered across the country, but at myself for looking at it, and CNN for continually showing it. I haven’t watched or read anything about him since. I am boycotting the celebration of killers. I don’t think I will ever see that movie either, because I won’t be able to get fantasy to shove the reality out of the way.

In this age of instant global fame, the quickest and surest route to it seems to be slaughter; and it is priced to sell. It is a free resource to what have almost become retailers of fear, and a ready outlet for the most repugnant beliefs and ideas. Nobody listens to you? Got something you think is important for people to hear but no luck on the distribution side? Massacre some folks! Then hold your hand to your ear like those cell phone commercials and say: “Can you hear me now?” Why, yes we can! It’s an advertising strategy even Don Draper would envy.

While prosecuting criminals for the last few years, I have generally avoided using their names. They are “suspects,” who may become “defendants.” If they are innocent they don’t deserve infamy. If they are guilty they don’t deserve fame. Most of all, they don’t deserve us all to hang on their every twisted word or rambling “reasons” for whatever they did. Can we hit the mute button? If we keep giving people who do terrible things exactly what they want, others may decide to exterminate their anonymity in a similar fashion. It may already be happening. We need a time out.

Can we end this rush for ratings or readers overnight? Of course we can’t. “CSI” and “Law and Order” are popular for a reason. This stuff is interesting. I would be lying if I suggested that dramatic subject matter isn’t a small part of what’s kept me in this job for so long. I have come to think though, that we should at least adjust the focus of our guilty pleasure just a bit.

I have been trying to start a conversation about whether the identity and endless information about people who do horrible stuff is necessary to inform the public about what they did. Can we give the public the facts without providing the villain both fame and forum? I bet we can, and I think we should give it a try.

A few months back I was actually asked to participate in a national cable TV show billed as “showcasing” (the guy actually used that word) our nation’s most interesting killers. I declined, saying they don’t deserve to be “showcased” or even talked about at all. Let’s not give them what they want, and see how that works for a change.

A few weeks ago I passed my 20th year of involvement with an organization called Families and Friends of Violent Crime Victims, which I marked by excavating vast expanses of Legion Memorial Golf Course with shiny metal sticks at our fundraising golf tournament. In that spirit of supporting crime victims, I suggest we try to avoid exploiting them. We can start by not celebrating those who kill them.

We can tell these stories in a different way, even if the sponsors squawk. We can honor the dead and injured by keeping guys like the Colorado killer generic and anonymous. Let the psychologists and behavioral experts figure out which screw got loose, while the rest of us turn our attention to those killed, and those left behind. I agree the public has a “right to know” about such atrocities, but victims are part of that public. They are not a commodity whose misfortune should be packaged, franchised and sold. Everyone’s “right to know” can and should be balanced by compassion and caution.

Who knows? If fame isn’t just a trigger pull away, maybe the next heavily armed maniac will scrap his plans for the “Avatar” sequel? Maybe the price of fame, or rather the cost to all of us, might start to go down.

Mark Roe is the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney.