NBC News has taken a lot of heat for airing the contents of the package sent to it by Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho. But while network news operations well deserve of much of the criticism they receive these days — this is a rare circumstance where NBC did exactly they right thing.
On this issue, I find myself in the strange position of defending a television news network that more than two years ago deftly stepped away from me when I, as a freelance correspondent for NBC, videotaped one of the most controversial scenes of the war — a U.S. marine shooting a wounded, unarmed insurgent in a Falluja mosque.
NBC, like most other American networks that received the footage under a pool agreement, chose not to air the entire shooting; it blacked out the critical portion when the marine raises his M-16, fires point blank into the insurgent’s head, then spins on his heels and strides away. It was a decision that, at the time, I not only supported but pushed for. It was the wrong decision.
The lack of context in our report created confusion and helped ignite a firestrom of anger, directed primarily at me, but also at NBC. As the anger grew, the network distanced itself from me by emphasizing terms like “freelancer,” despite a relationship that had spanned three wars and seven years.
Fortunately, because I was a “freelancer,” I had an independent blog through which I was able to provide a more complete telling of the mosque shooting story, clarifying the details and diffusing some of the anger.
The lesson I took from that incident, however, is that holding back information that is critical to the story, no matter how difficult or disturbing it may be to hear or see, corrupts journalism’s ability to report the truth and the public’s ability to understand it.
As I watched the Cho case unfold in the early stages, Cho’s use of “question mark” to describe himself seemed apt.
But when NBC’s Brian Williams reported that the network had received the package and began to broadcast some of the twenty-seven video clips, forty-three still pictures, and portions of Cho’s 1,800-word manifesto, the idea of who this troubled young man was began to emerge. He was clearly disturbed, full of anger and paranoia.
Some argue that the public need not hear or see the titillating details contained in these videos and photographs, that their only real use is to forensic psychologists and law enforcement officials. But in fact, these clues may be more useful to ordinary people who, by seeing Cho’s face, hearing his voice, gaining a visual understanding of what someone who is capable of this kind of violence is like, may be in a better position than law enforcement to spot the early warning signs and prevent another massacre.
Law enforcement experts have contended that giving Cho’s manifesto airtime only encourages copycat killers. After all, Cho did refer to Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, as martyrs.
But this kind of thinking creates a climate where journalism protects the public from information rather than delivers as thorough an account of a situation as possible. That is completely counter to our democratic belief that the nation is best served by a well-informed citizenry that can be achieved if the media pursue truth vigorously, even when it hurts.
The knowledge the public has as a result of NBC’s decision to air Cho’s package fuels and informs a much needed, but stagnate debate in this country over gun control and increased federal and state spending on mental health. The images of Cho will now, and perhaps always, color that discussion, and rightfully so.
For those still not convinced that NBC did the right thing, remember, this is the Internet Age. Cho sent his package to NBC, but he could have easily bypassed the mainstream media and posted his videos to YouTube and his photos to MySpace. With the exception of burning the NBC logo onto every photograph and video image to make it seem the package was the result of its own investigative work, NBC handled the material with a sensitivity that wouldn’t have happened had it just been uploaded into cyberspace.
There is a lot about TV news that deserves criticism — the endless Anna Nicole coverage, Nancy Grace, Geraldo, the failure to question the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war in Iraq, and so on. I don’t presume to know the internal calculus that led NBC to broadcast Seung-Hui Cho’s evidence of his own madness, but I do know that it was the right thing to do, regardless of the reasons.
Kevin Sites is a contributor to CJR.
Kevin Sites is a correspondent for Yahoo! News, his Web site, Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone (hotzone.yahoo.com) reports on conflict zones around the world.