BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Last week in Isla Vista, California, 22-year-old Elliott Rodger killed 6 people and wounded 13 others before killing himself. The media leapt to find out why he did what he did, and they found a digital footprint complete with YouTube videos, an autobiographical manifesto and comments on the message boards of self-styled men’s rights groups, comments filled with rage about his inability to attract a beautiful woman.
The instant psychoanalysis of a killer and of a society was underway. The implication of blame reached absurd heights when Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote that Hollywood movies could help us understand the killing spree. She singled out director Judd Apatow, whose films often feature a schlubby everyman getting the girl. That assertion led to a dust-up Hornaday went online to tamp down.
ANN HORNADAY: In singling out Neighbors and, and Judd Apatow, I, by no means, meant to cast blame on those movies or Judd Apatow’s work for this heinous action, obviously not. But I do think, again, it, it bears asking what the costs are of having such a narrow range of stories that we constantly go back to.
BOB GARFIELD: When you gesture towards causality, it’s hard to pull back. Forbes writer Kashmir Hill says that the digital detritus left behind by Rodger can be harvested to make whatever argument the media want to make.
KASHMIR HILL: This 137-page manifesto, writings he’d left behind on bodybuilding.com and PUAhate.com, an anti-pickup artist site, as well as his YouTube profile and Facebook profile, there was so much there that if you’re pro-gun control you could say, well, it was the fault of guns, or if you’re disturbed by misogyny in Hollywood culture, you could point to what he had said around that, mental health and what he may have been diagnosed with and if that was to blame. Really, if you came at this with an agenda, there was something there for you and you could attack it from that angle. And I think people are really quick to do that.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, episodes like this create a journalistic dilemma, because surely it is the job of the media to help the public understand why such a crime takes place. But the process of doing that leads the public to jump to conclusions, often very unfair conclusions that lay blame places where it isn’t deserved. What’s a journalist to do?
KASHMIR HILL: My impulse, when there’s lots of information there, review that information and then try to curate and compile it in a way that will make it digestible for my readers. So that’s what I did. I mean, it was the start of the Memorial Day weekend and I basically started just reading everything I could find online, you know, touching on the various things I could find, without my making a decision about what caused him to do this.
BOB GARFIELD: In this case, even his own words plucked from his so-called “manifesto” failed to provide any kind of full story, correct?
KASHMIR HILL: I actually have been calling it an autobiography, rather than a manifesto because it really is that. It is going through his life since birth and him basically psychoanalyzing himself. And this is where I thought Ann Hornaday had a point. There was something kind of cinematic in the way that he laid it out, almost as if his autobiography was a screenplay. Not that Hollywood is to blame, that’s not what I’m saying, but it seemed like he was very aware of the digital trail that he was leaving, more so than any of the other people I’ve seen who have committed these atrocious acts.
BOB GARFIELD: The logical fallacies that are so at the heart of some of the finger pointing are kind of breathtaking, are they not?
KASHMIR HILL: I found it very disturbing that people were willing to blame a group so quickly. I mean, around the men’s rights movement somebody wrote - I think it was an article on the Daily Kos - that because he subscribed to three YouTube channels where people give advice on how to pick up women, obviously, this group is to blame. And then I think it leads to this really unhealthy dialogue, where each side of the debate has such an extreme caricature of the other side, so all pickup artists and men’s rights movement people are, you know, on the verge of mass murdering people. And then they’re throwing this back at feminists, saying, oh, you think that all men are on the verge of killing people, and it just becomes this unproductive debate.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder if you catch yourself, at any point in your writing, from drawing conclusions that were misleading.
KASHMIR HILL: His Facebook page was full of selfies. There were very few photos of anybody else, picture after picture of himself. I think I focused on that in my write-up, that this person had this kind of pathological narcissism. I think I said something on Twitter about, you know, this would make me concerned when I saw any other Facebook profile that was full of selfies. And there was a person who responded to me on that who thought that that was really an unhealthy conclusion to draw.
BOB GARFIELD: Kashmir, what have we learned?
KASHMIR HILL: What was most disturbing to me in all this is that there was this really fulsome digital footprint. Based on the comments that he’d left on some of these forums and on the YouTube videos, concerns have been raised. There were people on this bodybuilding forum that said, you’re channeling Patrick Bateman, these videos are serial killer-esque.
BOB GARFIELD: Patrick Bateman was the character in American Psycho, the homicidal maniac in that story.
KASHMIR HILL: People seemed to see it, I mean, police visited Elliott Rodger’s apartment and questioned him. His family were concerned on the night that this happened; they were racing in a car to his apartment. So I guess what I take away from it is that it was all there. Everyone had a sense that something terrible was coming, and they didn’t stop it or couldn’t stop it.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s one interesting footnote to this. In going into the message boards of some of the subcultures, like the bodybuilders and the pickup artists, you discovered that far from just giving the most fertile ground for the seeds of his rage, there was pushback.
KASHMIR HILL: It seemed like people who were analyzing this had decided just because he was on those sites, he was having his ideas about women reaffirmed. And he did write that in his autobiography, that PUAhate.com confirmed his theories about women being wicked and degenerate. But when I was actually looking at the conversations that were happening, I saw people questioning him. He wrote a lot about how he thought women were stupid or how he hated seeing ugly men with beautiful women. There were a lot of racially charged comments that he was making, as well, and the people were pushing back and saying, you know, what, what really gets women is not your wealth or how you dress, it’s being fun to be around. It wasn’t this forum of celebrating hatred of women. There were people who disagreed with him and who were challenging him.
BOB GARFIELD: Kashmir, thank you.
KASHMIR HILL: Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: Kashmir Hill is a staff writer for Forbes.