Jan 1 1999

Drive-By Journalism

Rolling Stone's glam-crime reports misrepresent young people--and America's violence problem

Other than ultra-quotable crime experts such as Princeton’s John (“adolescent superpredator”) DiIulio and Northeastern University’s James Alan (“teenage crime storm”) Fox, few individuals have contributed more to the inflammatory and systematic misportrayal of teenage crime in American than Rolling Stone magazine’s contributing editor Randall Sullivan.

Sullivan’s fact-lite, anecdote-laden style specialized in blowing up extremely rare, bizarre murders by a few upscale kids into an unwarranted image of modern teenagers as “the most damaged and disturbed generation the country has ever produced” (Rolling Stone, 10/1/98). His language was panicked (“how truly and terribly lost we are”–9/17/98), his evidence lacking, his perspective nil.

While Rolling Stone editors gushed that Sullivan’s “River’s Edge theory of reporting” is a “tutorial for journalists who want to get to the marrow of a story about teens” (10/1/98), in fact he was an entertainer profiling vanishingly uncommon glam-crimes. His worst sin (a plague among anecdote-loving reporters) was a penchant for asserting terrifying trends and apocalyptic dementia in an entire generation based on some misfit-preppie-wastoid slaying that he picked to profile precisely because it was so oddball.

Sullivan initially sought to train his “discordant” journalism on privileged, suburban youths he reasoned were the most warped by the Reagan era’s celebration of greed, me-first “bubble of self-deception,” and “fusion of hysteria and hypocrisy.” When more “homicides and suicides…took place among those who were not only young, but white and well off,” he summed up, Reagan’s happy-face Morning-in-America cultural bookkeeping (like his economic schemes) stood arraigned of deceitful “creative accounting” (Rolling Stone, 6/11/92).

Sullivan’s concept was intriguing, but he picked exactly the wrong measures to illuminate it. He never checked basic facts to see whether the anecdotes of white, suburban teen dissolution he depicted as “subversive” to the Reagan cult of hollow selfishness illustrated real trends or kooky rarities. In truth, consistent figures from California’s Center for Health Statistics (1968-96) and Criminal Justice Statistics Center (1975-97) showed that suicide and homicide, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, violent and property crime, and other ills among white teens in California (the race and state of his youth-gone-wild reports) had plummeted from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s.

In 1975, 186 white California youths committed suicide or homicide; in 1985, 130; in 1997, 85. By the mid-’90s, white (non-Latino) California youth were 40 percent less likely to commit murder, 50 percent less likely to be arrested for a serious crime, 30 percent less likely to commit suicide, and 80 percent less likely to die from a drug abuse than those of the mid-’70s. White teens in New York and California, which tabulate crimes by race and ethnicity, had lower murder rates than teens in Canada–and only half the rates of black and Latino senior citizens!

But, like many on the cultural left who deployed teenagers as barometers of growing pop-culture depravity, Sullivan’s morality fable of white-teen apocalypse, that all suburban kids were “lost” to unheard-of savagery, escalated even as solid evidence showed no such thing was occurring. He was a founding father of the 1990s abysmal bad-kid-from-good-neighborhood pack journalism stampede (see People, 6/23/97; Los Angeles Times, 7/19/98).

By wildly hyping the sins of rich kids, Sullivan’s reporting fit neatly into the Reagan-Clinton dismissal of rapidly increasing poverty and joblessness caused by industrial shutdowns and government economic policies which were the true bases of increased inner-city teenage homicide and violence in the 1980s. In the end, Sullivan’s own baseless hysteria and hypocrisy directed against young people wound up upholding the Reaganism he started out to subvert.

Sin, not socioeconomics

Sullivan explicitly strove to portray “youth violence” not as a socioeconomic failing of larger society inflicted on poorer youth, but as a moral failing that pop culture-corrupted cherubs everywhere were inflicting on polite society. His breathless September 4, 1997 piece inflated a freak pocketknife murder among a half dozen wealthy teens from Agoura Hills, California, into a mass indictment: “Parents don’t understand how the world had changed…. Good kids today are just a figment of their parents’ imagination.” As noted, that slur is garbage–as Sullivan would have found if he had attempted to substantiate it.

In his recent two-part series on the Springfield, Oregon, school shootings (9/17/98, 10/1/98), Sullivan depicts “middle-class…white teenagers in rural communities and small towns” as more murderous than ever before, “desensitized” to mayhem, treating “the brutalization of their own sensibilities as if it’s a joke.”

Note: There are 23 million teenagers enrolled in 20,000 schools nationwide. Six students in five schools conducted the highly publicized shootings in 1997-98. Murder in schools is extremely rare, more so than in practically any other American institution (Justice Policy Institute, 8/98). All the school massacres last year combined killed fewer kids and adults than just two days of domestic violence.

Dismissing poverty and family abuses, Sullivan instead blames TV violence as “the most corrosive of all factors” in causing violent teens. Sullivan spends a page touting the loony theory of West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman that television is a greater factor in societal violence than all other factors combined. Yet Nielsen surveys show kids today watch only about half as much TV as kids did in the ’70s. And if TV’s the cause, why is the murder rate 14 times higher among black teens than among white teens? Why have murder levels among Oregon’s white kids have remained low and stable for 25 years, while minority youth murder rates quadrupled?

What we call “youth violence” is not caused by a nest of suburban stoners warped by screen fantasies. (Pulp Fiction is Sullivan’s favorite example.) It results from decades of very real economic, legal, educational and employment attrition against poorer youths, primarily minorities, forced to survive in jobless inner-city moonscapes–and, secondarily, from an unexplained, baffling eruption in drug abuse, family violence and serious crime in the 1980s and ’90s among aging, mostly white Baby Boomers.

Kids these days

Sullivan represents an extremely common genre, the crime reporter who never looks at a crime report. Instead of researching real trends and writing about cases that exemplify them, his “evidence” consists of ascribing profound insight to the hackneyed complaints of grownups full of praise for themselves and contempt for youth: 90 percent of kids in my day were good, 90 percent of kids today are bad; the whole problem is just “the way kids today are acting;” modern middle-class youth are “spoiled, nasty, misbehaving and off-the-wall bad” (10/1/91). This is the same kind of perpetual youth-bashing found in any era back to ancient Greece.

The larger meaning of Oregon student shooter Kip Kinkel is not Sullivan’s claim that “there are so many boys like him,” but that there are so few–even in a society where families are messed up, firearms capable of mass slaughter appallingly handy, and more youths are prescribed powerful medical drugs (in Kinkel’s case, Prozac) with unpredictable effects (see Breggin and Breggin, The War Against Children of Color, 1998). Just as disturbed adults occasionally shoot up Capitol entryways, post offices, bus yards and workplaces, so disturbed youths will very occasionally shoot up a school.

Sullivan laments that the “the unthinkable becomes commonplace,” which is exactly the fatal flaw in his reporting and that of other journalists who generalize from the bizarre. Freakish events make entertaining stories, but to obtain insight into the face of violence in America, reporters have to examine the more commonplace: not the two dozen kids murdered at school every year, but the 2,000 murdered and 475,000 injured in household abuses (National Child Abuse Coalition, Facts about Child Abuse, Third National Incidence Study, 12/6/98); not intensive analysis of rare suburban shootings, but larger patterns in the cycles of murder among the thousands of disenfranchised of all ages attempting to survive in the frontier economies of decayed urban centers.

Even on moral grounds Sullivan’s approach is empty. He finds Armageddon, a “wounded national psyche,” in six student gunmen, but never explains why these tragedies should be more psychically wounding than, say, the 41-year-old employee who raked a Caltrans yard in Orange with an AK-47, killing four (Los Angeles Times 12/20/97); the 40-year-old Huntington Beach aerospace worker’s rampage that murdered six (4/26/98); the 34-year-old Santa Clarita mother who asphyxiated her four daughters (7/7/98); the 40-year-old South Bay father who gunned down his family of five (8/5/98).

These “unthinkable” stories–just a few from suburban Southern California of the hundreds nationally concerning domestic slaughter over the past year–are so “commonplace” that they rarely get much coverage. Why are the deaths of children and youths at the hands of their parents, or the murders of poorer kids in shabby neighborhoods, judged by the media as trivial compared to far rarer schoolyard shootings and celebrity crimes? If the rarity of an event is what makes it newsworthy, isn’t it a contradiction (a serious ethical dereliction, in fact) for reporters to aggrandize their stories by hyping it as some kind of mass epidemic? Aren’t these profound “moral” questions for “desensitized” journalists such as Sullivan?

Sullivan’s liberal deploring of America’s “overreaction” and “punitiveness” toward adolescents is meaningless when his own incendiary rhetoric inflames the suburban fears that drive punitive policies. The ones ultimately to blame are Rolling Stone‘s editors, who seem satisfied with the magazine’s status as a smug glamour sheet pandering to the worst of aging yuppie prejudices–exactly the sort of institutional sellout that its political reporter and global-capitalism critic, William Greider, so often criticizes.