Ironically, Brian Williams said it best: in an interview on MSNBC last night, the anchorman noted his network’s “concerns” in airing portions of the “manifesto” from mass murderer Cho Seung-hui.
“This was a sick business tonight, going on the air with this,” Mr. Williams observed.
We couldn’t agree more, and after watching only a few seconds of Cho’s tirade from the grave, we have a question for Brian Williams and his bosses at NBC:
Why was it necessary to broadcast that garbage?
In today’s edition of The New York Times, Bill Carter details the events that led to the airing of portions of the Cho “package,” which consisted of a DVD and a 23-page file with text and photographs. From Mr. Carter, we learn about its arrival in the NBC mailroom; the “special” handling of the enclosed materials–everyone wore gloves–and the network’s (correct) decision to contact law enforcement and give the originals to investigators.
But Mr. Carter’s account suggests that there was less concern about actually televising the rants of a psychopathic killer. Toward the end of his story, Carter reports that “details of dealing with law enforcement and trying to decide what could be used on television accounted for NBC’s not covering the story until Mr. Williams’s newscast.” Note the term “what could be used.” Not “should it be used?” In fairness, NBC was not alone in taking that approach. Similar discussions apparently took place at the other broadcast and cable networks, which greedily snapped up (and aired) excerpts provided by NBC.
The folks at NBC (and First Amendment purists) would argue that it’s a reporter’s obligation to publish or broadcast news and images that are disturbing, even distressful. Refusing to do that, they contend, places the media on a slippery slope, providing a pretext for withholding information simply because it might upset or offend someone.
However, that argument only goes so far. Truth be told, there are a number of news images that broadcasters refuse to air, and rightly so. We don’t see the bodies of dead soldiers in Iraq. We don’t see the mangled corpses of Americans who die in traffic accidents. And, with rare exception, we don’t see faces of women who testify against rapists. Broadcasting such images would be an affront to our collective sense of decency, and a violation of the victim’s right to privacy.
There’s also the (slightly quaint) notion that broadcast journalists shouldn’t air video or images that only titillate, and don’t advance the story. Meeting that goal is difficult in a visual medium which dictates that some video–any video–is preferrable to a talking head. Anyone who watches local TV news has seen the pointless helicopter shots of a “breaking” story (which only prove that the station has an expensive chopper), or the endless video “loops” of the cable news channels, aimed at placating the audience until they can arrange a live shot, or air a finished report.
By those elementary standards, the Cho diatribe was not newsworthy, nor suitable for broadcast. When NBC Nightly News aired in Blacksburg last night, there was genuine shock and horror. A community consumed by grief and mourning was sent reeling again because a TV network received–and elected to air–a killer’s multi-media opus. That sense of shock and outrage is still reverberating across the Virginia Tech campus, the state, and the rest of the nation.
We can only imagine what the families and friends of the victims felt when they saw Cho Seung-hui posing with his weapons and ranting against the “rich kids” that sparked the rampage. Their pain was exacerbated by the knowledge that the killer mailed his package to NBC during the interlude between the dormitory shootings, and the mass murder at Norris Hall; one final, calculating act to firmly secure his place in infamy. To deny Cho’s final, twisted desire–and out of respect for the victims and their families–NBC had solid reasons for not airing the video and still shots from his “package.”
Likewise, the clips and images broadcast by NBC (and the other networks) did nothing to advance the story, or shed new light on events at Virginia Tech. NBC News President Steve Capus, who led the network’s decision-making process, told Bill Carter that Cho’s written material was dominated by “threats and gibberish.” The video segments were much the same, as millions of viewers can attest. “It was incredibly difficult to follow,” Capus observed. Simply stated, we learned nothing new by watching the material–it only heightened our national sense of revulsion and outrage.
Which brings us back to our original question. Why was it necessary to broadcast (and rebroadcast) this material? You don’t need to see Cho’s “manifesto” to understand that he was a sick, demented individual, consumed by hatred and rage. And he did not deserve a national platform to spew his venom; the senselessness of Cho’s actions speak for themselves, without a post-mortem commentary from the killer.
Sadly, NBC’s decision to air the manifesto (and share the material with its competitors) had less to do with journalistic standards, and everything to do with ratings. The dominance of its early-morning Today show is fading a bit; Mr. Williams’ Nightly News has been eclipsed by ABC, and cable outlet MSNBC remains mired in last place. Matt Drudge’s morning headline tells the real story: “Ratings Blowout for NBC.” With the Cho package leading his newscast, Mr. Williams easily outpaced his rivals last night. I’m sure that Today and MSNBC are racking up some impressive numbers as well.
When that package arrived in the mailroom yesterday, NBC and its news executives had a tough call to make: cave to the pressure of ratings by providing a posthmous platform to a madman, or take a principled stand, and refuse to air the material. The decision of NBC–and its competitors–speaks volumes about the current, deplorable state of American journalism.