2007-04-26 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

NBC Had Duty To Air Disturbing Footage Of Madman
By Neil S. Friedman

By Neil S. Friedman

On Monday, the ambiance at Virginia Tech returned to a degree of normalcy one week after 32 students were killed in a shooting rampage on its bustling, yet bucolic, campus.

With graduation and finals scheduled in the coming weeks, thoughts of the tragedy will certainly linger in the minds of students, faculty and administration officials.

But, while the college resumes its routine of education, several lingering matters deserve renewed and ongoing dialogues, including, yet again, America's obsession with guns - legal and illegal - and violence, exposing and disciplining school bullies and the behavior of the omnipresent media.

As a career journalist, the last item is my primary interest at the moment.

Most students surely welcomed the receding media spotlight, which had all but faded after Friday's memorial service and national moment of silence, no matter how intrusive it may have seemed in the days following the incident.

With 24/7 competition from three cable networks and scores of news crews and reporters on the scene in search of "breaking news" and updates, the Virginia Tech rampage warranted saturation coverage. As much as rehashing the story for some journalists may have been painful, the reporting, for the most part, was painstaking. But after the shock and awe of events had sunk in, the same news and photos were essentially repeated ad nauseum.

Two days after the shootings, a debate escalated when NBC News aired disturbing homemade video footage sent to them by Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho, who mailed the package in the mysterious two-hour gap between gunning down his victims and shooting himself.

Some victims' families subsequently backed out of a scheduled Thursday morning appearance on NBC's "Today" show, saying they were "terribly upset" the shooter would be given such interest. That choice was understandable, especially with their losses still fresh on their minds.

On the other hand, NBC News would have been remiss to ignore fresh information in an ongoing news story. Particularly news that may offer an answer to the question on many minds, "What made him do it?"

News organizations have an obligation and responsibility to report and inform, regardless of how insensitive and disturbing the details may seem to victims and some viewers. Had NBC withheld the contents of Cho's package, there would have been an equal and vociferous challenge. Neverthe-less, before airing images of Cho pointing a gun to his head, displaying several handguns and reciting hateful rants of a humiliated youngster turned angry young man that obviously pushed him over the edge, viewers were sufficiently warned about its graphic nature.

According to NBC News president Steve Capus, who has had a lot of unexpected screen time between this incident and the recent Don Imus firing, network executives decided after a reported seven-hour meeting to air the footage and distribute it to news organizations that requested it. Naturally, the requests poured in - from all over the world!

However, NBC and other outlets appropriately limited the footage after its initial airing. Within 24 hours most had completely stopped airing it. (On Monday, a Daily News op-ed column included a single picture of Cho pointing a gun to his head. So much for sensitivity a week later.)

The media, as some argued, did not thrust fame - or infamy - on Cho. That happened as soon as the troubled young man shot his first victim.

By the time President Kennedy was buried, three days after he was gunned down in Dallas in 1963, the nation knew more than it wanted to about the troubled life of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. And that was long before 24/7 coverage!

Ten days after the Virginia Tech shootings, the media keeps reporting new facts about Cho's life, keeping him in the spotlight, albeit a notorious one.

Moreover, it is, despite a reluctance to know, NEWS!

Here at the Courier , managing editor Charles Rogers and I confer weekly about what picture to feature on our front page. More often than not, it's a photograph of a car accident that goes beyond the bounds of a fender bender or a graphic fire. From time to time, we get complaints about those kinds of photos on the front page of a community newspaper. However, we've learned over the years that such photos, with the tabloid "If it bleeds, it leads" credo in mind, tend to sell more newspapers than when we put less sensational pictures there.

Like it or not, some things that we typically consider revolting are, now and then, tantalizing. especially when we're merely onlookers. Think about it the next time you're stuck in traffic on a highway or local street and, as you pass the scene of the accident, you, too, become just another rubbernecker, curious to get a momentary glimpse of the carnage.

Like it or not, in some way, NBC not only did it's job, but it satisfied the fragment of morbid curiosity in all of us. That, my readers, is human nature.

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