The president delivers a State of the Union because it’s required by Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. He does so in an address before Congress because one century ago Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice.
It’s a speech, rarely rooted in reality. There are ovations, often forced and uncomfortable. There are camera cutaways, revealing contorted faces often forced and uncomfortable. There are guests, and ribbons, and pageantry. Everything is carefully choreographed political theater. Everything.
President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address tore us away from much more compelling drama. Whereas the anti-inflammatory speech blew hot air and puffed smoke, the burning cabin 2,600 miles away contained more interesting themes and points of discussion about the society in which we live.
The Christopher Dorner saga, honest riveting drama to the very end, isn’t simply a case of a man gone off the deep end. It’s bigger than watching a Falling Down sequel unfold in real time. There are clear issues and narratives with true news value here: tales of police and judicial corruption, of race relations, of valuing some lives above others, of the flailing mental health of our soldiers and cops, of big bureaucracies crushing the little guy.
The State of the Union over the years has become a night of lofty idealism undercut by entrenched partisanship. Of the 6,400+ words, only raising the minimum wage to $9 and tying to to cost-of-living increases had news value. The rest was about funny faces, contemptuous scowls, rehashed policy positions and MUST-CLICK GIFs. Lots and lots of GIFs. What did we really learn on Tuesday night? That a bottled water company missed a big moment when Marco Rubio lunged off-camera for a sip of God-given refreshment?
But while many joked about Obama’s speech being split screened with Dorner’s burning cabin, it’s the latter that provided not only a dramatic movie script, but also the opportunity to ask some of very real questions that don’t need to be focused grouped and packaged as news on cable television.
• There are countless stories about soldiers/police officers readjusting to life outside of their job, but it’s all from the “How can we ‘fix’ this?” angle. We never ask, “What does it say about the nature of those occupations in the first place?” We’ve gone through all this trouble to construct a way of living reasonably as a society, albeit an imperfect one, but then the organizations we setup to protect it, specifically, have a very different set of rules, which betrays a fundamental lack of trust in our principles and institutions.
• What does it say when these organizations value their own lives over the people they’re protecting? It doesn’t appear as if anyone in the LAPD or Torrance Police Department been suspended, fired or even dressed down for shooting up two pickup trucks, one carrying two Latina women and one a white surfer. It was frantic! Our officers were high-strung! “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Wayne LaPierre famously told us after Newtown. But what stops a good guy with a gun from indiscriminately opening fire on good guys without guns?
• It’s not entirely clear whether Dorner, as laid out in his manifesto, was wronged when he was fired in 2008 over his “giving false statements” in a police brutality episode involving his training officer. But as The Atlantic notes, “There is some evidence that the judge who ruled against Dorner back in 2007 was not exactly squeaky clean. Judge David P. Yaffe resigned in 2010 and did so while in the midst of a bribery scandal.” Can one man against a machine ever get a fair shake? And when such back-room deals play out, as they do all the time, what is acceptable recourse in between taking it lying down and going on a revenge killing?
• Is there sympathy for the devil? Maybe it’s a few hundred tweets and that alone, but there did seem to be at least a small contingent of people rooting for Dorner as folk hero, like a modern-day Dillinger. What is it about the way we feel about our own lives, the way we go about day-to-day, that would lead us to cheer a man who shot two innocent people because of who they were related to? Even if some people in society fantasize about being cop-killers in their minds — fight the police state, maaaan — and even if Dorner’s manifesto was filled with celebrity accolades and fan fic, where’s the line between understanding revenge and condemning vengeful acts of violence?
• Dorner even had a couple paragraphs on gun control in his rambling screed and, even if it wasn’t the basis for his spree, he was looking to get attention for change, no matter how misguided. President Obama was doing the same, only his pulpit is more bully-able. In Dorner’s case, how do we say the things we want to say without contradicting our very premises?
• How can a police department have such a stunning lack of self-awareness when it comes to how they go about policing their cities?
There are many media distractions that don’t deserve air time. There’s much Internet fodder that’s too silly to believe it’s happening. But Dorner’s story deserved its attention, and jokingly asking whether Obama’s State of the Union would get semi-bumped as the leader of the news cycle by a burning cabin is actually something of a legit question.
Yes, you could state the obvious and say that an annual speech in which the leader of the free world sets out his policy agenda for the coming term, one where everyone in Congress gathers to watch, where there are all sorts of fascinating interpersonal dynamics that the country doesn’t usually get to see, and where the major talking points of the day are digested into an hour, is entirely more newsworthy than some loon who killed a bunch of innocents and left a bizarre screed. It’s not an either/or situation.
But just because one story contains some of the biggest figures on the planet and centuries of history doesn’t mean it’s the vehicle with all the news.