As the story of the shooting recedes, the story of the story of the shooting emerges to replace it. Fox made a show this morning of its decision not to air any more of Cho’s photos or video. As of this writing, CNN has not followed suit. A forensic psychiatrist who consults for ABC calls NBC’s decision “a social catastrophe” — but meanwhile, video of Cho is still available at ABCNews.com.
With the heat on, NBC issued a statement this afternoon defending itself:
The pain suffered by the Virginia Tech community and indeed the entire country is immeasurable.
Upon receiving the materials from Cho Seung-Hui, NBC News took careful consideration in determining how the information should be distributed. We did not rush the material onto air, but instead consulted with local authorities, who have since publicly acknowledged our appropriate handling of the matter. Beginning this morning, we have limited our usage of the video across NBC News, including MSNBC, to no more than 10 percent of our airtime.
Our Standards and Policies chief reviewed all material before it was released. One of our most experienced correspondents, Pete Williams handled the reporting. We believe it provides some answers to the critical question, “why did this man carry out these awful murders?” The decision to run this video was reached by virtually every news organization in the world, as evidenced by coverage on television, on websites and in newspapers. We have covered this story — and our unique role in it — with extreme sensitivity, underscored by our devoted efforts to remember and honor the victims and heroes of this tragic incident. We are committed to nothing less.
Would you have aired it? It’s a major exclusive about a huge mystery that’s attracted intense public interest. The news networks all aired Osama’s videos after 9/11 as evidence of his motive, notwithstanding what it might do to the victims’ families. They all aired and re-aired video of the planes crashing into the buildings, too. As awful as the Cho tapes must be for the VTech victims’ families, I can’t imagine that watching the towers crumble was any easier for spouses of people who were trapped inside. The counterargument is that 9/11 was a matter of national interest with enormous policy and electoral implications; the public simply had to know as much as possible to respond intelligently to it. There are policy implications to what happened with Cho too (i.e., gun control), of course, but none that will likely be affected by video of him jabbering incoherently about trust-fund babies. Thus, the proper analog is to that O.J. “If I Did It” interview that got cancelled, not to 9/11. If we’re unwilling to let O.J. profit from his crime, however tangibly or intangibly, why let Psy-Cho?
Tough call. I tip slightly in favor of airing it because (a) I hate when the media plays paterfamilias in deciding what is and isn’t “appropriate news” for the public to see, and (b) I was honestly curious. Spruiell’s been grasping for some grander justification, like bringing the power of collective intelligence to bear on the evidence, but I think he’s just dressing up natural curiosity about the psychology of a mass murderer in some nobler utilitarian faux purpose. Which is not to say the media should be showing us crime-scene photos and pornography, etc., pursuant to point (a); obviously the feelings of the victims’ families do matter and just as obviously there are experiences so mortal and private that we recoil instinctively from images that exploit them in the interest of news. As unsatisfying an answer as this may be, I think ultimately it’s just a gut reaction about where to draw the line of decency, and so long as NBC didn’t/doesn’t show any crime scenes, I’m willing to cut them a break.
The one argument I don’t find especially compelling is that they shouldn’t have “rewarded” him by running it. How did they “reward” him by exposing him as a complete, yammering lunatic? If he had had some sort of political message and wanted to get it out this way, a la the Unabomber manifesto, that would be one thing. As it is, the only thing we’ve learned is that the voices in his head weren’t big fans of people who drive Mercedes Benzes. In terms of “rewarding” him with fame, I’m afraid that horse was already out of the barn by the time NBC got the package. Do a Google search for “Ismail Ax” and see how many hits you get. If I recall correctly, there were fewer than 10 results as of Monday afternoon.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the other side of the argument. I even sort of understand Hugh Hewitt’s argument for allowing tort claims for hurtful speech against news organizations, even though I don’t agree with it and think it would be a First Amendment nightmare. I just think where there’s huge public demand for a major story and NBC is sitting on something big, why not supply the information? Tell me in the comments why I’m wrong.
Update: It bears reminding that, according to Brian Williams, they didn’t air the worst of the videos. There was some editorial judgment exercised here.