Ruminations on the Sniper's Nielsen Ratings

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Sunday afternoon, October 20, I was in a pizza restaurant, eating
my low-carb salad, when I glanced up at one of the two TV sets on
the wall. I could not believe my eyes. It was a news show. Under
the image of the female anchorperson was a message. The message
identified what was taking place on-screen. Channel flippers would
see this and presumably stop flipping. I had never before seen such
honesty on a TV news show. The message announced: Endless Sniper

The sniper, whatever his motives, has revealed what TV producers
have always known: most Americans cannot follow a plot that is complex,
but they are ready to sacrifice their time to follow one that has
a lot of action. This is why soap operas are not on prime time.
To keep prime-time viewers tuned in, there has to be action. The
sniper has moved Action News into multi-network mini-series status.
Its Nielsen ratings are astronomical.

If the sniper is seeking a sense of power, then he is not going
to stop shooting. He is orchestrating the media the way that Toscanini
led the New York Philharmonic. The ratings get higher with each
attack. If he is hooked on notoriety, then the escalating level
of media coverage will addict him even more.

The public may sense this, but people will not stop watching.

The news media may sense this, but they will not stop meeting the
public’s demand.

The authorities may also sense this, but they are in desperate need
of a tipster. To identify some little-known fact that may alert
him, they have to reach a large local audience. The media deliver
this. Police officials also fear remaining silent, as if they were
doing nothing. Being on TV is the essence of doing something in
America. So, we see police chiefs on parade.

What the sniper has shown is that this audience is national. A hundred
million adults who are not at risk geographically will not stop
tuning in. The mini-series effect is overwhelming.

By the way, the sniper is almost certainly masculine. I think most
people know this. I have yet to hear anyone refer to the sniper
as “he or she.” Why the National Organization of Women tolerates
this blatant media sexism, I can only speculate. But I won’t. Not
here, anyway.


I see only two possible motivations: terrorism or perversion. No
one can kill at will unless he sees himself either as a warrior
in a cause or as God. In either case, he perceives himself as setting
his own agenda and controlling life and death. He exercises power.

If he is a terrorist with a cause, the cause seems to be nonpolitical.
He is not issuing manifestos. This is not the Unashooter. There
is no list of principles that society must adopt, or else. There
is no targeted class of victims.

I believe he is a pervert — not sexual, necessarily, but a pervert
nonetheless. He has gone over the line morally — the ultimate line:
the wilful and repeated taking of human life. This act is so perverse
that the Bible actually identifies animals that take human life
as deviant and deserving of death (Genesis 9:5).

He does not stop killing. I believe that he is addicted to killing.
He is obsessed.

When he is at last captured or shot, psychologists will become the
talking heads on parade. But the public will lose interest rapidly:
no action. For the Nielsen ratings to be maintained, the plot must
not grow complex.

If he is an al Qaeda member, falling ratings will not matter. We
will be subjected to endless interviews with People in Authority.
The media may even give Attorney General John Ashcroft — the
invisible man — some air time. They will hold their liberal
noses for the sake of sticking it to Osama, the other invisible

Will Ariel Sharon be interviewed? Is the Pope Polish?

The same scenario applies if the sniper is a member of the National
Rifle Association, let alone Gun Owners of America. But at least
Charlton Heston or Larry Pratt will get some air time, which will
help build their mailing lists. It won’t be all bad.

The sniper story will be dropped by the media like week-old sushi
if the sniper gets shot in the act by a member of the National Rifle
Association, let alone Gun Owners of America. Meanwhile, direct-mail
copywriters for the NRA and GOA will be working overtime.

If he turns out to be a member of the homosexual network, his background
will not be covered in detail by the TV networks.

There is a looming crisis for the anti-capital punishment crowd.
What if he is taken alive and convicted? They have to be praying
(or at least meditating in a highly concentrated fashion) that the
sniper will make a last stand inside some burned-out Baltimore crack
house, where the police will gun him down. They have to be hoping
that he will have a confession note in his wallet.

Why? Because if he lives to stand trial and is then convicted, the
media will be forced by standards of journalism, not to mention
the Nielsen ratings, to interview a stream of expert criminologists.
They will have to ask this politically terrifying question: “For
public safety, what should the jury recommend that the judge mandate
as punishment?” Or, horror or horrors, what if the judge recommends
psychiatric care? And . . . this is unthinkable . . . what
if the guy is said by the shrinks in 2007 to have recovered completely
from his psychosis, and he is set free? And then he shoots down
an elderly nun?

It couldn’t happen, right? Just ask Edmund Kemper. If you can get
an appointment, that is.

Motivation. In all of this, consider motivation. Motivation is important
for all those concerned.


One problem with a riveting mini-series like this one is that it
offers other faceless nonentities an opportunity to become stars.
Most sequels fail to get an audience as large as the original, but
for someone who desperately wants more than each person’s supposedly
allotted 15 minutes of fame, a sequel offers a tremendous opportunity.

In a society in which basic moral standards are inculcated early
in children and reinforced by all of society’s major institutions,
deviants remain deviants. Hardly anyone wants the publicity. Deviants
are not regarded as titillating. But when they receive constant
attention by the media, and also produce a long series of court
appeals, would-be stars start making cost-benefit analyses.

Otto Scott, who was a working journalist for several decades prior
to becoming a speech writer and historian, once visited the restricted
reading room of the New York Public Library. He was given access
because of his profession. He wondered if he would be exposed to
a collection of pornography. What he found was a collection of books
and clippings on brutal murders. The library at that time had a
policy of not making such materials available to the public because
of the threat of copy-cats.

Today, female nudes are on the big screen and even on the small
screen on the pay-per-view channels late at night. Stories of brutal
murder are on the small screen 24 hours a day. A person who is most
likely to become a model for copy-cats is the hottest TV ratings-booster
in America. What was once a restricted room in the New York Public
Library is now the living room.

This, in my view, is not spiritually healthy.


I refuse to watch any of it. The police will get him eventually.
I am not interested until then.

I must admit, however, that I will be very interested to see who
gets interviewed after he is caught or dead, depending on which
special-interest group he belongs to.

I am praying that he wasn’t home-schooled.

24, 2002

North is the author of Mises
on Money
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