By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A media manifesto

It was around 5:30 p.m. yesterday when I heard an NPR report that NBC News had obtained a video and pictures from Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech mass murderer. According to the report, NBC had turned over the material to law-enforcement officials. From what I could glean, it sounded as though the network had decided not to air it. I’ll confess that I didn’t think too deeply about it at that moment, but it seemed like the right decision.

Of course, I was wrong. Later in the evening, after I got home from a meeting, I learned from talk-show-host-in-exile Scott Allen Miller’s blog that NBC had indeed broadcast Cho’s hateful words and images. Miller wrote:

Words have yet to be invented to describe the callousness with which NBC News has re-victimized those who survived or lost loved ones in the massacre and rewarded Cho Seung-hui with post mortem television stardom. Cho’s place in history was assured by his murderous rampage, and now he’s a TV star. Even better, he’s a dead TV star. Ooooooh!

I can’t help but wonder how the families and friends of the dead and wounded reacted when they tuned in to NBC News tonight and saw Cho’s martyrdom video — not a transcript of it being read, but the actual video — in which he cursed those he was about to murder and maim.

At that point, I started flipping around the cable channels. MSNBC, CNN and Fox News all had the Cho videos in heavy rotation as Joe Scarborough, Anderson Cooper and Greta Van Susteren interviewed various experts and officials about what it all meant. This morning, the New York Times, the Washington Post, both Boston dailies and virtually every other media outlet of note have posted the video on their Web sites. So if NBC executives made the wrong call, they’re hardly alone.

But did they in fact make the wrong call? Or is the Cho video so newsworthy that it can’t be suppressed? On reflection, I would argue the latter. As I wrote yesterday, the critics of the Jamal Albarghouti video are right to lament the utter lack of context in which it has been shown, but wrong to argue that, therefore, it shouldn’t be shown.

It’s the same with the Cho video. Running it in an endless loop struck me as offensive, mainly because it was decontextualized, disembodied, displayed purely for shock value. But not to run it at all? How could any news organization withhold such explosive material about the worst mass murderer in history? Miller is absolutely right that the video further traumatized survivors and family members if they were unfortunate enough to see it. But journalists edit the news for the public, not for family members. I also think the original report on the “NBC Nightly News,” still available on MSNBC.com, was handled professionally and sensitively.

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of people who agree with Miller. Check out some of the comments on NBC News anchor Brian Williams’ blog:

Please, please, take the videos of Cho down….

Leading off your national newscast with the ramblings of this disturbed maniac just gave birth to God knows how many more….

You should be ashamed. While the families of those that died are trying to deal with this horrible act of violence you provide the killer with exactly what he wanted, world wide viewing of his hatred….

Oh, my god, your news cast has made me so enraged I cannot even see straight. You are glamorizing this man and his rambling by giving him a national stage for his words? What the hell are you thinking?…

I could go on, but you get the idea. And let me add this, from blogger and frequent Media Nation contributor Peter Porcupine: “By choosing to give this presentation the validation of platform, NBC has sent our nation and our heritage just one more step down a dank and violent road.”

So what, exactly, were NBC News officials thinking? Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz attempts to answer that this morning on his blog, passing along a colleague’s report on what went into the decision. Law-enforcement officials reportedly told NBC at 4:30 p.m. that airing the material would not jeopardize their investigation. NBC went with the story two hours later. Offering some historical perspective, Kurtz writes:

This was no easy decision. Not since the Unabomber demanded that the New York Times and Washington Post publish his endless manifesto has a news organization faced this kind of judgment. In this case, of course, the killer is dead by his own hand, so the only reason to publish his invective is to aid public understanding of the worst gun massacre in American history — or allow him, posthumously, to gloat.

The idea that there may be some sick individuals who’ll see the Cho video and pictures and seek to emulate him is not to be dismissed. It’s that, rather than the families’ sensibilities, that gives me the greatest pause.

Still, I think NBC made the right call. And yes, it’s possible that someday we’ll look back and see that it was a terrible mistake. But there isn’t an editor or a news director in the country who wouldn’t have done what NBC News did yesterday. I realize there are many who will say that’s evidence a twisted media culture. They might be right; I hope they’re wrong.

Update: On “Today,” Matt Lauer had this to say: “We feel strongly that this is not video that we need to run in some kind of an endless loop, and so we will severely limit the amount of footage that you’re going to see” (via NewsBusters). So why was MSNBC doing exactly that the night before?


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14 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    NBC absolutely should have run with it. First of all, this hooey about re-victimizing is cynical at best. At the risk of sounding utterly callous, the victim’s families can change the channel. Also, has anyone floated the possibility that some of the family members may have actually wanted to see it for themselves? Has anyone even asked a family member if they watched, and what they felt? This has been declared the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The public should be informed of every little detail that news outlets can scrape up, just as we know every little detail about JFK’s assasination, just as we know every little detail about 9/11. We need to know who did this. We need to know why he did it, and we need to find out not if it could have been prevented; not if it college officials made the right call in not locking down after the first shootings; not if this should lead to a renewed debate on gun control. We need to find out how–in a society we tout as the best place in the world, the best form of government, the highest standard of living, the most opportunity–someone like Cho could have fallen so deep in between the cracks. The answer to that question is, I predict, much uglier than any video of Cho on the news.

  2. Anonymous

    Uh, isn’t Adolf Hitler still the worst mass murderer in history?

  3. o-fish-l

    At 8:56 AM Dan wrote (snippet): “According to the report, NBC had turned over the material to law-enforcement officials.” What I believe I heard on NBC was that, “NBC IMMEDIATELY (emphasis added) turned the material over to law-enforcement.”If that self-praising statement were true, how then did NBC remain with all of the material? Not surprisingly, the network is engaging in double-speak more suited to shady politicians.A more accurate statement would have been, “After making copies of everything for the benefit of NBC, our sponsors and our ratings, we then turned everything over to law-enforcement.”One also wonders who in “law-enforcement” gave the green light to this and declared “at 4:30 p.m. that airing the material would not jeopardize their investigation.” Are you kidding me? At most, it had been only a few hours after receiving what appears to be a substantial amount of evidence into the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history –the networks would later admit the material was not easily understood– but “law-enforcement” was able to tell NBC to run with it? For all we know, Cho’s words and actions in the manifesto and on tape could reveal an accomplice, a terrorist sponsor, a signal to associates to begin their leg of the plan, anything. Airing it almost immediately was totally irresponsible. My guess is that the “law-enforcement” official who gave the OK is the NBC lobby security guard, or someone of similar rank.That said, the material submiited by Cho might have had an appropriate place at the right time, after investigators had plenty of time (months) to analyze it and long after the victim’s funerals.

  4. MeTheSheeple

    Worst American school murderer, yes. Worst mass murderer, no.Iosef Stalin arguably has the tops as far as mass murders go — something like 18 to 24 million in his purges, I’ve heard. Not sure if that includes the Ukraine; imagine causing starvation bad enough to lead to cannibalism in Kansas.The worst school shooting also belongs to Russia, with some 344 dead.

  5. Scott Allen Miller

    Dan, I think you may have misunderstood what I wrote. I concluded with:The tragic event itself is no longer a breaking story, and the mindset of this killer will still be of great interest to the public in the coming weeks. For the sake of all who mourn and bleed, and for the sake of decency, couldn’t [the story] wait?That is, NBC should have run the story, only later. You’re right that almost any other media organization probably would have acted the same way, although I think a local newspaper or television station in Blacksburg wouldn’t have.

  6. Anonymous

    Oh please o-fish. I seem to remember the state police guy or whoever announced it at that press conference yesterday thanking NBC for its actions and saying something about how NBC did the right thing with dignity (don’t have a transcript). Not to be morbid, but the cat was out of the bag by that time, and I just heard on NPR one of the authorities saying it was, in the end, not all that valuable as far as evidence goes. The state police guy they talked to said they had figured out a lot of the stuff anyhow. Also, who gives a flying you-know-what how long NBC took to make god damned copies. They’re a news agency, not an arm of the government, and you can bet any news org worth its weight would be feverishly copying everything before handing it over. And whether it took 20 minutes or two hours, again–it was long after the shooting. “For all we know, Cho’s words and actions in the manifesto and on tape could reveal an accomplice, a terrorist sponsor, a signal to associates to begin their leg of the plan, anything. Airing it almost immediately was totally irresponsible. My guess is that the “law-enforcement” official who gave the OK is the NBC lobby security guard, or someone of similar rank.”Take that conspiracy theory b.s. to right-wing-nutjobland, where you can also weigh in on whether the students were too wimpy in not tackling the gunman immediately.”That said, the material submiited by Cho might have had an appropriate place at the right time, after investigators had plenty of time (months) to analyze it and long after the victim’s funerals.”Again, that presupposes that law enforcement tried to stop NBC from running it. From the looks of it, they didn’t seem to care. And what time is a good amount of time to wait, and who decides–you?

  7. The Scoop

    Dan, what do you think of NBC giving the information to law enforcement in the first place? Doesn’t it go against the journalistic principle of cooperating with an investigation? A video blogger spent weeks in jail because he refused to hand over evidence in a much less severe case, but one of the largest news organizations in the world “immediately” gave up evidence in one of the nation’s worst crimes ever.I’m not saying I agree with that rule of journalism; in fact, it is probably the one I agree with the least — provided the media does not let itself become an arm of the law. But nonetheless it is a rule that many journalists hold near and dear to their hearts, and the question of its role in this video debate should be asked.

  8. Steve Mullen

    I blogged on this last night and believe NBC News should be ashamed. I might be able to agree with some limited airing of the images in the package. But, NBC not only promoted the videos ad nauseum, they aired them at the beginning AND the end of the newscast, teasing the entire time that they had more video on the way. It was a massive mistake on the part of NBC. I’m a former journalist and one of the first rules I learned is that you don’t air anything that would encourage copycats. What they did last night was an open invitation to psychopaths, telling them that if they kill enough people their message will be heard.For more, here’s a link to the post on my blog, the Blog.

  9. Anonymous

    Peter Porcupine wrote:> “By choosing to give this > presentation the validation of > platform, NBC has sent our nation > and our heritage just one more step > down a dank and violent road.”But it is just one step down this road, and there have been many in the past and there will be a few more in the future. But we are well down the road and unquestionably beyond redemption.

  10. Neil

    To the scoop:Dan, what do you think of NBC giving the information to law enforcement in the first place? Doesn’t it go against the journalistic principle of cooperating with an investigation?I don’t follow. If there’s a journalistic principle of cooperating with an investigation, then there’s no problem. Are you suggesting that there is a journalistic priniciple of not cooperating with an investigation?Other than the rare case where the breaking of news actually matters to the public in terms of safety, in which case they certainly ought not to even consider the scoop value, early reports are usually junk whose value seems only that some news outlet can boast about it. (A noxious variant of this is the faux-breaking-news tease: “Cure for cancer?–tune to Ch. 7 News at 11 for the answer!”) Think of all those live shots where a reporter is standing in front of a police station or street corner where something happened six hours ago. “I’m so-and-so, reporting live!” Big deal. False sense of urgency. No value added.Other than for those directly affected it doesn’t matter if you learn about something like this now, or in a few hours. In fact in most cases the real story (the how and why) doesn’t emerge for a couple of days and who broke the story to begin with is irrelevant. NBC teasing these videos is disgusting. Even on those rare occasions when the news outlets show restraint (eg not showing beheading videos, say), their self-congratulatory tone in those cases is pretty insufferable.

  11. o-fish-l

    Anon 1:27, your anger toward me is palpable but misplaced. Just as I suspected this morning, Supt. Flaherty, who is leading the case, is disappointed that NBC aired the footage. How telling in praising itself that NBC left out that minor detail. Also, the spin now seems to be that NBC immediately “informed” police not that NBC “immediately turned the material over to police.”—–From Brietbart / AFP 10:19 AM, via DRUDGE:Police Thursday lamented the fact that a university killer’s hate-filled video manifesto was aired by US media. ‘I was disappointed in the editorial decision to broadcast these disturbing images,’ said Virginia police superintendent Steve Flaherty, noting that until recently, only law enforcement professionals would have seen such footage. ‘I’m sorry that you all were exposed to these images,’ he said. On Wednesday, NBC news received a multi-media package sent by Cho Seung-Hui, a student at Virginia Tech who killed at least 30 people and himself in a bloody shooting spree on Monday. After first informing the police about package, NBC later aired it ensuring Cho’s disturbing diatribe was immediately shown on evening news broadcasts across the country.

  12. Don

    NBC created their own sweeps week. Disgusting.

  13. Jan

    But they didn’t air his manifesto…they aired severely edited versions of the manifesto.If they wanted to show his manifesto, then by all means DO it. Show us the ‘crazy’ parts, the unintelligible parts — the psychosis. Instead, they showed us ‘the face of evil.’ Nice. That fits a nice neat package. But is that Cho?Sure, his behavior was evil — and maybe he was evil (spiritually, emotionally). But he was also psychotic. Most of the manifesto was nonsense — so where is that? Show us that so we can see the face of psychosis, too. Isn’t that the story? Wasn’t that Cho??There is little doubt that he was acutely psychotic. His roommates say that he had an imaginary girlfriend who traveled from space to visit. That’s pretty crazy. He also said he had dinner with V. Putin. Unless he really did, that’s purely psychotic.I think the reporting fits out need for blame — you can blame evil; you can’t blame psychosis nearly as easily. Anyway, these comments are late to the table, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.Jan

  14. Anonymous

    sorry o-fish, but you are really clueless about the news biz, or about the role of freedom of the press. fairly typical of arrogant law enforcement types — they really think THEY should get to decide when materials gets out to the public. its exactly THE OPPOSITE, fish. if we lived in fish-world, the nifongs and gonzalezes and bushes would have control of facts and evidence for as long as they wanted — and predicated on what? their trustworthiness and great track record of honesty. hey fish, are you following the pat tillman case (look it up)? fish is typical of rightists who still want to fault the media for informing the public. if the default mode of anyone on this media blog is to withhold info from the public, you’re in the wrong business and p.r. beckons you.

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