question of the day: Is Discovery Channel shooter James Lee a canary in a coalmine?

Yesterday afternoon, James Lee picked up a gun, strapped some pipe bombs to his body, and took hostages at the Washington DC-area headquarters of the Discovery Channel. The situation ended a few hours later when Lee was shot to death by police.

According to the Village Voice blog Runnin’ Scared, Lee had a history of protesting the programming on the Discovery Channel, and noted that DCist had highlighted some of Lee’s protests in 2008. DCist asked:

Anyone who seriously ponders questions about the Discovery Channel like, “If their ‘environmental’ shows are actually working, then why is the news about the environment getting worse?” is just asking for a good mocking.

But Lee’s question seems like a pretty good one, actually. Here’s what Lee actually wrote in an attempt to gather participants for a week-long protest in 2008 outside the very same building where he died yesterday:

The Discovery Channel produces many so-called “Environmental Programs” supposedly there to save the planet. But the truth is things are getting WORSE! Their programs are causing more harm than good. They are failures. If something is not functioning; there needs to be a change of course. It’s time to bring about new initiatives and try different approaches whether they are conventional or unconventional. It is evident that the old approach is ineffective. We can see this when we watch the news or read the newspapers that their ways are not working. It’s one disaster after another. They are deliberately showing ineffective shows to make it seem like something is being done when nothing is. Their ineffectiveness is evident by the lack of results. Things should be getting better because of their shows, not worse.

We are running out of time to save this planet and the Discovery Channel is a big part of the problem, not the solution. Instead of showing successful solutions, their broadcast programs seem to be doing the opposite. Shows like “Cash Cab” and “Dirty Jobs” serve as diversions to keep the focus off what is really important, which is Global Warming and Animal Extinction. Why do they broadcast a show like “Future Weapons” that only promise to destroy the planet even more? And their new lineup “Planet Green” is all about more products and other substandard solutions. Do we really need shows like these when the planet is in crisis? No, instead the focus should be on coming up with new formulas that actually work. Why would the broadcasters and programmers focus more on the destruction of the planet rather than saving it?

Clearly, Lee was insane — taking hostages is hardly a productive activity, and his manifesto, which is separate from the protest information above, is much more poorly written and full of such phrases as “disgusting human children” and “immigrant pollution.” But just as even a stopped clock is right twice a day, Lee’s tirade touches on some vital questions about the state of the world, and the state of journalism.

And yet even all the likely responses to Lee’s words and actions seem like defeatism: Well, what can we expect from a TV network? Its job is to entertain, not inform. If you have to be insane to be frustrated by this, if the “sane” response is to shrug and say, “What can ya do?” then is there any way to right all the many things that are wrong with journalism and to repair the idiocy of what passes for our cultural discourse?

Obviously, Lee’s “solution” is no solution at all, and is ridiculously counterproductive. But what is the solution? Is Discovery Channel shooter James Lee a canary in a coalmine? Are his terrible actions yesterday a harbinger of an increasing collapse in meaningful communication… or of an increasing frustration with that collapse? What do we make of him, and of what he was so angry about? Or do we not make anything of him at all?

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