You Never Think It’ll Happen in Your Neighborhood

About four hours ago, a man walked into Trolley Square, a quaint, relatively tiny Salt Lake City mall, and opened fire with a shotgun. The details are still sketchy, but, as of this writing, six people are confirmed dead, including the gunman, and an unknown number of injured people are in nearby hospitals. The victims have not yet been identified, and authorities have not even specified their genders or ages.

I don’t have too much to say about the shootings themselves. What is there to say? It’s a tragedy for the victims, of course, and I personally find it a little bit frightening to think about it, because I’ve been known to frequent Trolley Square myself. I’ve been going there since I was a kid. I’ve always loved its maze of dark corridors with all the odd little nooks and crannies. But the dim lighting and meandering pathways that can be so charming on a date must have been terrifying for those who were there tonight. Visions from countless horror movies, and most certainly from the The Terminator, were surely playing in some people’s heads. I know they would’ve been in mine.

(For you out-of-towners, this mall was built inside a number of very old industrial buildings that used to service Salt Lake’s pre-WW II streetcar system, hence the name “Trolley Square.” The former nature of the buildings has given rise to some strange interior features that a purpose-built public space wouldn’t have.)

The question always comes to mind when you hear about these things: what would I have done had I been there? Would I have even realized what was happening? Would I have been a hero or a coward, a runner or a hider? Would I have even survived? The gunman reportedly entered the mall near The Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant, and at least one of the dead fell near there. The Girlfriend and I eat there all the time. We could have been there tonight. And that is terrifying.

Even as I freak myself out with these hypotheticals, however, a cooler, more cynical part of my mind is also observing the news coverage, rating the performance of my local journalists. And I am deeply, deeply annoyed. First, there is the ridiculous custom followed for all “breaking news” events these days, namely non-stop live coverage — consisting mostly of video taken from a hovering chopper — for over an hour, despite the lack of fresh information or even of anything interesting to look at. Because nothing is happening on the video feed, the anchorman back in the studio feels obligated to keep up a non-stop blather so there won’t be any dead air — he just keeps repeating the same sketchy information over and over again, asking the same inane questions of everyone he speaks to over the audio feed and hoping that someone will have a different answer. Which, of course, they never do. It’s all so useless, great amounts of heat and light that add up to nothing, but of course none of the stations dares to cut away because something might happen and one of the competing station would get the scoop.

And then come the eyewitness interviews with sobbing, red-eyed women and posturing young men trying not to show how scared they are, the same as the eyewitness interviews we’ve seen countless times for similar events all across the country. They contradict each other wildly: the gunman was alone; he had a companion. He was wearing a trenchcoat; no, it was a leather jacket. He had a shotgun; a hunting rifle; no, a pistol. He engaged in a shoot-out with police officers. No, it was a single off-duty cop, a la John McLane in Die Hard. He was killed by machine-gun fire. Or was it a single pistol shot? Again, it’s a useless waste of bandwidth. Nobody really knows a damn thing because they were confused and scared and trying to get the hell out of the way, not memorizing what they were looking at.

And when the police spokesperson finally steps up to the mike, she’s not at liberty to divulge anything except the bare bones, but the reporters try to pry something more out of her anyway. She keeps saying, “I don’t know, I can’t say, I can’t reveal that at this time,” but they just keep asking the questions she’s already said she won’t be answering. These are the same reporters who an hour ago were conducting eyewitness interviews, but they apparently didn’t pay any attention at all to what those witnesses were telling them. For instance, one guy seems obsessed with whether the shooter was firing “indiscriminately” or if he was targeting specific people. The cops ain’t saying, although if you’ve heard from witnesses that a guy was shooting at random into the crowd, well, then, he was probably firiding indiscriminately, wouldn’t you say? Idiot.

Or how about the dingbat who asked if the shooter roamed throughout the entire mall. Well, you had witnesses from the Spaghetti Factory, and you had witnesses from the Rodizio Grill. I’ll bet there’s someone there on site who’s been inside the mall and could tell you that Spaghetti Factory is on the west end of the building and Rodizio is on the east end; do the math, and then ask me again if the shooter was roaming. Dear lord…

You know what I’d like to see happen when these sorts of events occur? I’d like to see a short break-in in which the anchorman describes very concisely that there’s been an incident: what, where, when, and how much we currently now. Then go back to the regularly scheduled program. Do not return until you know something new. Then you may break in again to report that to us, again very briefly. Do not repeat the information eight times. Twice will be sufficient.

And finally, don’t start drawing conclusions until the cops give you something to conclude. I’m willing to bet that when the dust settles, the shooter will not be dressed as the news guys have described and he didn’t do exactly what they say he did.

I can’t help but think Edward R. Murrow would be absolutely appalled by the state of local television news here at the dawn of the 21st century. I know I am.

Anyway, it’s been quite a night here in the SLC…


4 comments on “You Never Think It’ll Happen in Your Neighborhood

  1. Cranky Robert

    Jason, I’m sorry to hear about the tragedy in your hometown.
    I can’t add anything to your comments on the journalism. Local news was one of the first things I stopped watching when I began the gradual process of getting rid of my TV altogether. The only local news channel I ever really enjoyed was New York 1, which was very good about giving regular updates without beating a story to death.
    But I do recall that the first time I visited you in Salt Lake City, in April 1994, we had lunch at the Spaghetti Factory in this mall. Am I right?

  2. jason

    Now that I think about it, we did indeed go to the Trolley Spaghetti Factory on your first visit. Good memory. I’d forgotten.
    For further reference, the old diner I took you to on your last day in town on that same visit, Bill and Nada’s (the place that advertised Brains ‘n’ Eggs), used to be right across the street from this mall. It’s gone now, razed after the owner (old Bill himself) died a few years ago.
    I was pretty shocked by the whole thing last night, obviously; today, it’s more that numb resignation that shit happens all over, and it was just Salt Lake’s turn. I do feel curiously lucky, though, which is odd since I had no plans for being anywhere near there this week.
    I don’t watch the local news very often, except when I want a weather report. I read a while back that when you filter out weather, sports, commercials, and “cute” banter between the personalities, local news consists of only about five minutes worth of actual headlines, and there’s rarely much journalism behind them.

  3. Jen B

    I’m with you on the news thing. I turned it on last night at about 7 after my mom called to see if we’d been anywhere in the vicinity (she only called us because my brother in Sugarhouse called to tell her they were fine). When they started repeating info after 2 minutes of live helicopter feed, I turned it off. I figured I’d check the 10 pm news to see if they had anymore info, but I didn’t expect to hear anything new until today. I was right.
    It’s never worth watching a “Breaking News” story until it’s been news for at least 12 hours, because by then they MIGHT have some of the facts straight.

  4. jason

    Yep, you’re right on all counts, Jen.