There's a lot of talk about how the media should adopt a self-imposed blackout on the name and life story of mass shooters. This makes a lot of sense because so many of these spree killers are motivated by a desire for notoriety. The media occasionally omits information for the greater good, such as when the names of rape victims and children accused of crimes are not reported.
Just this week dozens of media outlets hid the news that NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel had been kidnapped in Syria along with a cameraman and producer:
A number of news operations in Turkey reported that Engel and a Turkish journalist were missing in Syria, and that story was picked up by the UK's Daily Mail and websites like Gawker. But, for the most part, NBC and an informal group of reporters and aid workers jaw-boned most of their colleagues into not following the story, arguing that reporting could put them in danger.
But when I read the suggestion that the Newtown killer's name be obscured to discourage future fame-seeking murderers, it makes me wonder whether people realize how uncontrollable the media environment has become.
There was a time when the media could have enforced a blackout policy successfully. Almost all of the news came from large professional outlets such as newspapers, wire services, TV stations and cable networks.
Today, those outlets are competing with millions of bloggers, online journalists, social network users and message board members, any of whom is capable of breaking a story that goes global.
The Newtown massacre is sending millions of people to their web browsers for more details. If the old media goliaths silenced all mention of the killer, the new media davids would stand to make an enormous windfall in traffic and ad revenue if they outed him. And nothing is capable of stopping them.
Twenty one years ago, the media hid the name of the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape. She was still obscure enough that it was news six months later when she chose to reveal herself.
Nine years ago, the media hid the name of the woman who accused Kobe Bryant of rape. Her name was revealed by a no-name web site that received millions of hits. By the time she sued Bryant in civil court and some of the old media identified her a year later, it was a moot point.
What changed? In 1991 there wasn't a single web server in the entire United States.