Should NBC Have Aired the Va Tech Killer’s Video?

Hugh Hewitt strenuously objects to NBC’s decision to air the video made by Virginia Tech mass murderer Cho Seung-Hi, implying in his title that it may have been “The Single Worst Editorial Decision In The History Of Broadcast News.”

Soon after the press conference at which it was disclosed that NBC had received a package of print, photos and video materials from the Virginia Tech murderer, I interviewed Howard Kurtz about how NBC should handle it. (The transcript will be here later this evening.) We quickly agreed that any video should not be shown, and while I think that Howard thought perhaps a picture could be aired, I and the live audience I was broadcasting in front of disagreed. I would have published –instantly– the text of the killer’s statement’s for the public to read, but I would have denied the killer the instant video glorification he so obviously desired, an immortalization which other deranged killers of the future will almost certainly seek to emulate. NBC decided differently.

He’s got a point. Then again, one could argue that about any footage of terrorist attacks and coverage of still-on-the-loose serial killers. Should the networks have not aired the collapse of the World Trade Center so as to deny the terrorists an undeniable propaganda victory?

I’d say not. While Cho obviously wanted the video run, it’s not NBC’s job to spite him; rather, it is to report the news to their audience. Undeniably, the content of the video is news.

Further, while there’s such a thing as copycat crimes, I’m skeptical of the claim that people who would otherwise have led peaceful lives are going to be inspired to mass murder by the lure of 15 minutes of fame.

UPDATE: Here’s the video in question via YouTube.

UPDATE: WaPo’s Howie Kurtz and Bill Carter of the NYT weigh in.

Kurtz describes how NBC agonized over the decision and cooperated with authorities:

After turning over the original documents to federal authorities, NBC News President Steve Capus said last night, he faced a “tough call” in deciding how much to air, if any, of the Virginia Tech gunman’s expletive-filled video and 1,800-word letter, along with photos of Cho and his guns and bullets.

“We tried to be sensitive to the families involved and to the investigation,” Capus said in an interview. While it is “possible” that some relatives of the 32 students shot to death Monday may say that the network is giving the killer the platform he wanted, “they also may say, ‘We want to know why. We need to know what was in his head, what drove him to do this.’ This is a portrait of a killer.”

Capus said Virginia State Police officials, in a conversation about noon, asked NBC to “hold off” on releasing the material until they had a chance to review the material. The state authorities gave NBC the green light about 4:30, saying it would not jeopardize the probe. The network aired portions of the video and note on “NBC Nightly News” at 6:30.

Anchor Brian Williams told viewers: “We are sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected, and we know we are, in effect, airing the words of a murderer here tonight. . . . So much of it is so profane, so downright gross and incomprehensible. We tried to edit carefully for broadcast tonight.” The segment was posted on http://msnbc.com.

Carter focuses on the mechanics of the process more so than the ethics, noting “NBC executives had no explanation for why the network was singled out to receive the package, and nothing in the materials explained the action. Nothing on the envelope or in the package cited a specific individual at NBC.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tlaloc says:

    Should the networks have not aired the collapse of the World Trade Center so as to deny the terrorists an undeniable propaganda victory?

    Yeah, actually they shouldn’t have shown it, or at the very least not broadcast it 24 hours a day for three days straight.

    For psychological warfare our society is seriously unarmed.

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    It’s nice to see some can turn anything into anti-Americanism.

    NBC should have aired it and we should choose to watch or not. As a society we have right to try and understand the motivations of this killer. He gets no satisfaction from his image on TV because he is dead.

    I would rather have information available than have it withheld like the police routinely do.

  3. Anderson says:

    Yeah, airing it was right, not b/c Cho wanted it aired, but because *we* wanted to see it — wanted to understand more of what kind of person did this.

    (“Seriously crazy” would seem to be the answer, not surprisingly.)

  4. G.A.Phillips says:

    Yes, like all liberals they have the right to be heartless, outrageous, careless fools without a God blessed care for the feelings of others and or the harm the cause with the sensationalizing of the last wish of the murder that they have granted!

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    Anderson, come on, it’s gotta be right because we want to see it, because we want to understand it, dude I know that you are smarter then this.

  6. Tim C says:

    They should not have shown it. A retired FBI profiler on Keith Olberman’s show said the photos of Cho with the pistols would “energizing” to someone contemplating similar activity. He said certainly talk about it, describe it, but don’t show the visual. This coming from a man who has spent his career getting inside killers’ heads. And after his segment was over? MSNBC broadcast another photo of Cho pointing a gun at the camera.

  7. Tlaloc says:

    There’s a big difference between the Cho video and the WTC collapse. The first was single actor. Making him famous versus the public right to know/understand is an open question and good arguments can be made either way.

    The WTC was a planned media event, it wasn’t a physical attack so much as an attempt to create a psychological effect. So what’d we do? We took that emotionally powerful image and fed into the world’s largets media machine to make sure it was in everyone’s face.

    Brilliant.

    Imagine how much it would have cost for someone we don’t hate to buy that kind of advertising coverage? Al Qaeda got it for the price of a couple box cutters and nail clippers. Why? Cause we decided to give it to them.

    No wonder we’re losing. Darwinism in action.

  8. just me says:

    Mostly I think not-while it was sent to them, and they could do it, showing it doesn’t sit right with me mostly because it seems to give him at least some fame and notoriety, and I would rather see the media seek to limit that-sure he won’t be aware of what the media did, but others who might want to go out in a blaze of glory for whatever reason might find it interesting.

  9. Steph says:

    If it would boost ratings NBC would rape a child on TV.

  10. not the senator says:

    I don’t like censorship in any venue. There should be warnings allowing those who do not wish to view the material the opportunity to avoid it, but how can we learn from an event if we are denied the evidence?

    To avoid the glorification of a murderer like Cho, maybe we should switch immediately from his posturing for the camera to the results of it. His post-suicide picture showing him so mangled that he was unidentifiable. That makes the whole ‘going out in a blaze of glory’ thing a lot less appetizing. These kids who grow up on the sanitized violence of movies and video games don’t realize how grisly life really is.

  11. Pug says:

    Yes, like all liberals …

    This is a good way to start a comment. It gives fair warning that what you are about to read is a list of generalizations that make the writer feel good.

    There isn’t a news organization in existence that would have witheld the videos from the crazy sucker: and, man, was he crazy.

    Actually, American media is a little more restrained than some others. They haven’t shown things like the beheading of Nick Berg or all the dead bodies lying around after a bombing in Iraq. And I don’t mean that as an anti-war comment, just that the media has been fairly restrained in showing the carnage.

  12. Tano says:

    OMG, I actually agree with something that Steve Plunk wrote. Something is seriously wrong.

    I find this discussion fascinating – for it shows how little respect there is in our society for what real freedom means. So many people here, if given a little power – as gatekeepers – would love to exercise that power to decide what the rest of us get to know about the world.

    Oh, they put it in terms of not giving the evil ones the attention that they want, or some other self-righteous drivel, but what it comes down to is that they (or some authority figure) gets to package the information and present us with a version that they think we can handle.

    I say no. We are free people, and not only entitled to unfettered access to information, but I think we have at least some moral responsibility to seek out as much information as possible if we are to play our full role as citizens in a democracy.

  13. The only real problem I have with NBC airing it is that they treated it as a proprietary asset and used it to earn what can only be considered as blood money. Had they made it available to all the other networks this charge wouldn’t hold up. Had they offered it to all the other networks the earlier comparison to showing the 9/11 atrocities would make more sense as well.

    Personally, I’d rather we all agreed to never mention the bastards name again to rob him of the notariety he craved and to help prevent any copycat crazies.

  14. The only real problem I have with NBC airing it is that they treated it as a proprietary asset and used it to earn what can only be considered as blood money. Had they made it available to all the other networks this charge wouldn’t hold up. Had they offered it to all the other networks the earlier comparison to showing the 9/11 atrocities would make more sense as well.

    Personally, I’d rather we all agreed to never mention the bastard’s name again to rob him of the notoriety he craved and to help prevent any copycat crazies.

    (Typos corrected, sorry.)

  15. Steve Plunk says:

    Why Tano, thanks for the compliment. I’ll admit I’m not the brightest bulb in this pack. You said it much more eloquently than I did. We do not need gatekeepers of information deciding what we are privy to and what we are not.

    Now are we best buds?

  16. Tlaloc says:

    Oh, they put it in terms of not giving the evil ones the attention that they want, or some other self-righteous drivel, but what it comes down to is that they (or some authority figure) gets to package the information and present us with a version that they think we can handle.

    You misunderstand. I’m not saying someone should have stepped in and put a stop to it. I’m saying we collectively should have known better and never done it in the first place.

    But we don’t and we didn’t. And that’s about the best proof there is that we’re going to lose ultimately. We’re just not smart enough again collectively to do the right thing.

  17. Tano says:

    Steve,

    Sure. We can be buds and disagree most of the time, no?

    Tlaloc,

    Our problem here is not that we misunderstand each other. I am fundamentally opposed to what you consider to be “the right thing”.

    Cho and /or the terrorists may do things to get attention, and we may all wish that they do not get this wish, or any of their wishes. But when that bumps up against our right to know, as opposed to being spoon-fed packaged information, then its just too bad. The terrorists will get their attention, sad to say.

    People living in totalitarian regimes are “protected” against all manner of information, and this probably lessens the payoff to terrorists working against those regimes. This is consistent for the totalitarian regime, because they have no concept of the necessity nor the desirablity of an informed citizenry. Its not a tradeoff that I consider worthwhile.