Why is the Media Anti-Hero?

August 3rd, 2011 6:56 PM

In October 25, 2007, a U.S. Army specialist in Afghanistan braved enemy fire in an attempt to save a fellow soldier who had been wounded in an ambush. An insurgent bullet struck his armored chest plate, knocking him down. He got up and rushed back into enemy fire to retrieve his fallen comrade. He threw several hand grenades toward the enemy, and was able to grab his colleague and immediately begin first aid. Though the man he'd risked his life for later died from the wounds, his heroic actions didn't go unnoticed. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, received the medal of honor on November 16, 2010 from the White House for his valiant actions in attempting to save his fellow soldier.

But you won't hear much about this real life hero in the media or in Hollywood. Chances are, you didn't even know his name. But you probably do know the names John Gotti, Whitey Bulger, D.B. Cooper, Julian Assange. You've no doubt heard of the "Barefoot Bandit."

Those are the anti-heroes whose stories the media chooses to tell. Murderous mob bosses on the run for years, bank-robbing skyjackers, mysterious international computer hackers and whimsical thieves are called "notorious legends," celebrated for their daring, Hollywood movie-like crimes. Meanwhile, those who suffered bullet wounds and amputations for protecting our freedoms are mentioned in passing, maybe called "heroes," before the media skips to the next story.

While it's true that people have always been fascinated with crime and have a tendency to romanticize outlaws, but there wasn't a shortage of tales about conventional heroes to balance things out - especially during war time. In the 1940s, for every film about gangsters there was one (or more) about the heroism of the U.S. armed forces. But since the 1960s, anti-hero stories have been standard Hollywood fare.

And we can expect more of the same. The FBI has what it calls a "promising" lead in the case of D.B. Cooper, the man suspected of skyjacking a plane in 1971, demanding $200,000, and parachuting out of the plane with the cash, never to be heard from again. According to recent reports, a man unrelated to the case, has come forward with an item that could prove to be a promising link to the 40 year case. 'A forensics lab in Quantico, Virginia is testing the unnamed item, an NBC news report read. "DNA from it will be compared to a tie clip left behind on the hijacked plane."

The D.B. Cooper case sounds like a Hollywood movie (and it was made into one, 1981's "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper," starring Treat Williams and Robert Duvall), as does the case of missing mobster Whitey Bulger, who inspired Jack Nicholson's character in "The Departed," a 2006 Hollywood blockbuster. A famous New England mob boss, Whitey Bulger is wanted for 19 counts of murder and has been on the run from federal authorities for 16 years. That is, until June 22, 2011 when authorities found and captured Bulger in Southern California.

But these exciting stories and the media coverage that ensues only serves to make these criminals into heroic rebels. And it isn't just the 30 and 40 year old cases that fascinate the media, but recent crime sprees as well.

The "barefoot bandit" was another example of media fascination with a criminal on the run. The 20-year-old shoe-less thief was on the run for nearly two years and wanted in nine states for a series of burglaries. Colton Harris-Moore was caught and pleaded guilty for several crimes on June 18, 2011. Harris-Moore was featured in more than 80 network news shows since October 2009, with many describing him as "notorious" and "famous" as the police "hunt for a legend."

The AP called the 'barefoot bandit' a man of "international notoriety." On the July 25, 2010 "Good Morning America" broadcast, ABC's Bill Weir called the chase a "fascinating saga."

Another recent case, and one that provides a profound contrast with the story of Sgt. Giunta, is that of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assange attained hero status among his left-wing, anti-American supporters, and the media fawned as well.

Assange, who published thousands of leaked U.S. Military war documents, has been called "mysterious" and "eccentric" by CBS's reporter Steve Kroft, who also repeated that Assange has been called a "hero" and "martyr." Richard Stengel, a Time magazine editor called him "idealist" and "information anarchist."

The most egregious examples come from the left wing sites that hailed the international villain. Salon.com suggested he was a hybrid of a Bond villain or Jason Bourne character. Amnesty International called him a "new-media innovator" and Australian newspapers called him an "outlaw folk hero."

DreamWorks has bought the rights to the WikiLeaks story, according to a March ABC news story that dutifully referred to Assange as "the international man of mystery himself" and speculated on which Hollywood star would play the America-hating Australian.

As for the "Barefoot Bandit," Variety reported last year that Fox bought the feature rights. But don't hold your breath for bio-pics about heroes like Army Staff Sgt. Giunta and Medal of Honor winner Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry.

U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Leroy Petry received the medal of honor from the White house last month and was recognized for his actions in May 2008 in Afghanistan when he (after being shot in both legs) picked up a live grenade that had been thrown at his platoon of Army Rangers, and threw it in order to save his fellow soldiers. Petry's hand was blown off from the grenade's explosion, but he somehow applied a tourniquet and continued to fight until all his men had been evacuated.

It's the stuff movies are made of - or, at least, used to be made of.