In a way—a twisted and evil way, to be sure—the live on-air murders of WDBJ Channel 7 reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward on Wednesday morning, along with the wounding of local chamber of commerce official Vicki Gardner, amounted to former journalist Vester Lee Flanagan’s final television news package.
“That’s exactly right,” said CNN veteran Frank Sesno, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “It’s the nightmare of a disgruntled employee with a gun, magnified by a camera and social media…The guy captured the whole thing and put it on social media, and made it his last will and testament and confessional.”
The toxic mixture of real-time mayhem and mass media is hardly a new phenomenon; there was, for instance, the 1974 live in-studio suicide by gunshot of troubled Sarasota, Florida, anchor Christine Chubbuck, and the 1987 on-camera suicide at a packed press conference—again, by gunshot—of scandal-plagued Pennsylvania state treasurer Budd Dwyer.
While those infamous incidents of the past were tragic, seemingly desperate, acts of self-loathing, the recent grisly beheading videos distributed by the Islamic State—and presented, creepily enough, with glossy production values and musical accompaniment—are somewhere on a similar continuum with a compelling video press release, perhaps the most extreme yet calculated iteration of cinematic story-telling skills.
Flanagan, a 41-year-old former local TV reporter—who went by the on-camera moniker “Bryce Williams” during his brief, unhappy employment at the Roanoke, Virginia, CBS affiliate, from which he was dismissed two years ago after multiple incidents of workplace rage—was arguably taking his cue from the Islamic State, practicing a perverted form of personal journalism when he fired a handgun at his victims as the station’s camera transmitted the horrific images to shocked viewers.
More to the point, Flanagan was wearing his own body-cam, with which he filmed point-of-view video of his cold-blooded act, and after fleeing the scene in the waterside town of Moneta, posted visual documentation of the carnage on Twitter and Facebook, along with disturbingly matter-of-fact commentary—apparently using his cellphone.
The social media sites quickly removed Flanagan’s posted “reports,” although not before images from the terrible POV video were widely circulated on various news sites.
And then, less than two hours after committing his crimes, which occurred around 6:45 a.m. during WDBJ’s local newscast, Flanagan faxed to ABC News a 23-page document—time-stamped 8:26 a.m.—that offered a deranged explanation for his horrific acts, claiming that they were in response to the racially motivated church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Flanagan called ABC and acknowledged in a brief phone conversation that he’d murdered two people, and that the authorities were “after me” and “all over the place,” according to an account by ABC News reporters Pierre Thomas and Jack Cloherty.
Less than two hours after that, during a police chase up Virginia’s Interstate 66, he fatally shot himself.
Significantly, Flanagan—an African American who had reportedly filed formal complaints against the station after being let go, alleging racial and other discrimination—had initially contacted ABC’s news division identifying himself as Bryce Williams, a journalist with a hot tip.
He told ABC “he wanted to pitch a story, and wanted to fax information. He never told us what the story was,” stated the ABC News account.
“I’ve got to tell you, I worry about the signal this sends,” Sesno told The Daily Beast. “Unfortunately, this is all of a piece with the accessibility and availability of technology, such as what the Islamic State has done, turning their mass murders into beach-side horror shows.”
Sesno added: “What this demonstrates is that for the disturbed people who want to use images to disrupt or terrorize others, they have a very easy task now, and that ability and technology is in everybody’s hands.”
And unlike incidents of the past, in which editors and news directors could act as a responsible filter, the messages of both Islamic State and Flanagan (at least in the minutes before Facebook and Twitter scrubbed his postings) were directly viewable by the general public.
While TV outlets exercised restraint in not endlessly showing video of the on-air shootings, that video—with its soundtrack of screams—was easily available online.
Sesno, however, pointed out that unlike the Islamic State—which has successfully used violent video as a recruiting tool—Flanagan’s video package was the work “of a lone and disgruntled, horribly disturbed human being who did it as a last act of revenge.”
Not surprisingly, Flanagan’s crimes struck a raw nerve with people in the news biz; some of the cable anchors during Wednesday’s wall-to-wall coverage looked stricken, visibly struggling not to lose it. The story was uncomfortably close to home.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I,” said Fox News anchor Jon Scott, echoing the sentiments of many.
And yet, the news team at the grief-stricken home station of the 24-year-old Parker and 27-year-old Ward managed to keep their composure, and admirably displayed their professionalism, as they covered every aspect of the fast-moving story.
That, impressively, was journalism at its best.