Debating the Shooter’s Publicity Kit
All over America, friends and colleagues were deeply divided about the media frenzy over the Virginia Tech shootings.
— So, you think NBC shouldn’t have aired that Cho Seung-Hui video, do you?
— NBC has a new definition for its initials: the Narcissism Broadcasting Company. How fitting it is that their logo is a peacock. It’s bad enough that this monster gunned down 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech. But in between murder sprees, this vicious, calculating killer calmly went to the post office and sent an Express Mail package of his self-glorifying pictures and videos to NBC News — and NBC News rushed this killer’s propaganda on NBC and MSNBC within hours of receiving this bundle of psychosis.
— So what’s your complaint? The timing — airing the video when nerves were at their most raw — or airing it at all?
— Let’s start with the timing. Usually, after a school shooting, network news divisions mourn with the families and comfort them on their shocking losses. In this case, NBC took their wounds and shoveled salt into them. Outraged families canceled their planned NBC interviews because their pain in no way balanced out NBC’s naked desire to stick it to its competitors. NBC News President Steve Capus implausibly claimed they were handling the exploitation with "great sensitivity" to the grieving, but the idea that they have any corporate compassion was completely lost to anyone who watched the network’s frenzied programming.
— So NBC should have held off airing it?
— But that doesn’t make sense. It presupposes there would come a better time to broadcast this video. In the eyes of the Virginia Tech community, there will never be a better time for this. Two weeks, two months, two years from now — they’re still going to be upset, and understandably so. But they can’t ultimately decide what news will air on television any more than the families of the victims of 9-11 could do so.
— Now hold on! What happened on Sept. 11 was, unequivocally, news. This? This was the blatherings of an evil man, and a coward who blamed everyone else for his massacre. "You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience. … You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people."
He wanted public exposure for his rants — and chose NBC. Are they really proud of that? "More mass murderers choose NBC than any other news network." Is that the kind of corporate branding you would put in your annual report to stockholders?
And another thing. NBC seemed completely dismissive of the idea that airing these self-glorifying images would encourage copycat shootings, just as Cho had copycatted the Columbine killers. In Time magazine’s look back at the shootings, Jeffrey Kluger nailed this point: "It may be uncomfortable for any journalist to admit it, but the flood-the-zone coverage that usually follows mass murders simply confirms a potential killer’s belief that what he sees as his small and inconsequential life can end on a large and monstrous chord, even if he won’t be around to enjoy the transformation."
— I’ll grant you that possibility. But isn’t the opposite also true? Isn’t it about time the public get a front-row seat to reality? So many reporters were assuming, without a shred of evidence, that he was "deranged" and "troubled" and "sick." It was nothing of the sort. He was evil. Satan exists. It’s high time the public awoke to this truth. If airing the video shocks (and sickens) the public enough, then NBC has done something good.
— By that logic, then, NBC should air everything it captures on film. It certainly had access to stomach-turning video of the victims themselves. Should we have seen all the blood, the brains blown out and the rest?
— But by your logic NBC shouldn’t run anything that might offend, and that’s simply untenable. I’m suggesting this was newsworthy, and this was necessary. Having said that, I’m in complete agreement that its airing should also have been limited.
— How would you have accomplished that?
— Three ways. First, I’d air enough of the video to tell the story, and not one second more. Second, I’d limit the times I would air it. I might air it only once. Third, I’d decline to share it with the other networks.
— And you’d be opening three more cans of worms in the process, and you know that.
— Which is why sometimes it is impossible to make the right call in this business.