Jack R. Censer


On his book On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media

Cover Interview of April 11, 2010

The wide angle

I was drawn to a new topic—I am an historian of the press of eighteenth-century and revolutionary France.

But I can trace my interest in contemporary media to my belief that the techniques developed by scholars in eighteenth-century press history can be more generally relevant.  (A very large group of historians, scattered across the globe, have worked intensively on these methods—even collectively, I might say, under the informal leadership of Pierre Rétat and Jean Sgard, who taught in Lyons and Grenoble respectively.)

Of course, living in the Washington suburbs also exposed me to the press coverage of 2002 and fascinated me.

Two contemporary issues pushed me to take up this particular subject.

First, despite some important exceptions, the dominant approach to the contemporary American press measures political bias.  While this is surely an important perspective, it seemed not to match up well to the practice of more general reporting.

I decided to pursue the motivations driving the press in a story where it was difficult to establish political sides.  Despite some effort to construct the sniper as a terrorist or, from the left, as the result of poor gun control laws, this story essentially lacked a partisan rift.  And in this situation professional goals and personal risks proved to be the main factors.

Second, I was unhappy with the standards used by media critics. Such scholars in and outside the university, whether from left or right, typically start with personal abstract standards and produce overwrought condemnations.

Even the most generous approach—using the goal of objectivity—is not very helpful: objective knowledge is not really attainable for complicated issues.  As a substitute, the press tries to meet the goal of objectivity by simply showing “both” sides—even if one or even both of these sides have only a vague claim to fairness.

Although I do not have a solution to this problem, I show a range of approaches to the sniper story from various strains of the media, contrast those approaches to the ones of the schools, and link media coverage to factors that framed reporting. Even though the “true evaluation” might not emerge, we might understand the basis for the reporting we see

Finally, the view that contemporary media is too inclined to purvey fear, raises another important question.  While my book asserts that the years after 9/11 proved more fearful for most Americans, the question may still be asked how this era fits in with previous ones.

Some scholars see a systematic rise in fear during the last few decades or even earlier. I believe that there have been at least episodic spikes.  All of these trends make an impact both on the press and on the public.  But always together?  At the same time?  To what degree?  The book helps to establish a chronology.