The death of Cecil the Lion, slain by dentist Walter Palmer earlier this month, provided the media with a weeklong story-cycle, combining genuine outrage over the killing of the beast with the now-standard online witch-hunt targeting the killer.
Several factors combined to make this a portly news story, from animal cruelty to a privileged assassin. The story also tapped into more general concerns about conservation, the environment, endangered species and western, specifically American, indifference towards nature and the fate of the planet. Palmer remains in hiding... but not for long. Anger will fade and the mob will move on. Here are the 10 key stages of this week’s media-led outrage:
- An animal with a human name is killed in a nasty way to sate the bloodlust of a Western trophy hunter.
- Media outlets, knowing animal cruelty equals hits/viewers, jump on the story, employing adjectives such as “beloved” to describe a 420-pound wild animal. Comedian/animal lover Ricky Gervais is conscripted as distributor for the copy.
- An enterprising reporter reveals the killer’s name. Editors delight in the fact he’s white, rich and American and therefore fair game for a hounding. Picture editors trawl the web to find the most evil-looking images of the killer. Past indiscretions are found and published. The dentist's Facebook page is closed and his Yelp page attacked.
- Local reporters visit his home and business. His address is deliberately revealed. Social network users encourage the local community to carry out summary justice. The dentist killer is compared to Dr. Christian Szell, the Nazi war criminal from "Marathon Man."
- Piers Morgan pens and publishes a psychosexual fantasy about torturing the killer. Several online petitions launch demanding justice for the slain cat. The now-closed dentist’s practice becomes a pop-up shrine.
- The killer employs a PR firm to limit the damage. They release a statement that increases the damage. The killer deliberately ignores the cause of the outrage (you lured, maimed, killed, skinned and beheaded a lion) and instead focuses on the legality of the hunt while shifting blame to the local guides. He goes into hiding.
- Richard Dawkins offers an alternative view, decrying the mob mentality, while pointing out the hypocrisy of focusing on one lion’s death. Some users engage Dawkins in an esoteric discussion about the brutality of nature and the genetic impulse to kill. Most just tell him to “shut the f*ck up.”
- Previous trends are incorporated into the fresh outrage. #JeSuisCharlie is repackaged to #JeSuisCecil. Current trends crossover like a Marvel film. The Trump and Cecil streams briefly combine over the presidential candidate’s son and his trophy hunting past.
- A late night talk show host breaks down over Cecil’s death. The scene is quickly packaged and uploaded to YouTube for online media, providing the show with publicity while offering a fresh line for the newspapers. A professional artist tries to expresses the world's outrage with a tribute.
- Two Zimbabweans are freed on bail over the death. No one cares; they are not the target. Focus shifts to a review of the outrage rather than the lion’s death or the criminal case. Editors commission articles that highlight "more important things" than a dead lion. Pieces of a missing plane are found, everyone moves on....
It's not for food. It's not the shooting, or tin cans would do. It must just be the thrill of killing. Mental. http://t.co/0fjtXoC1ML— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) July 28, 2015
.@kazzahambo Felt guilty about joining in the witch hunt when I described Palmer as "vile". ALL trophy hunters are vile. Don't pick on one.— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 29, 2015