Thursday, April 19, 2007

NBC's Shame

Ironically, Brian Williams said it best: in an interview on MSNBC last night, the anchorman noted his network's "concerns" in airing portions of the "manifesto" from mass murderer Cho Seung-hui.

"This was a sick business tonight, going on the air with this," Mr. Williams observed.

We couldn't agree more, and after watching only a few seconds of Cho's tirade from the grave, we have a question for Brian Williams and his bosses at NBC:

Why was it necessary to broadcast that garbage?

In today's edition of The New York Times, Bill Carter details the events that led to the airing of portions of the Cho "package," which consisted of a DVD and a 23-page file with text and photographs. From Mr. Carter, we learn about its arrival in the NBC mailroom; the "special" handling of the enclosed materials--everyone wore gloves--and the network's (correct) decision to contact law enforcement and give the originals to investigators.

But Mr. Carter's account suggests that there was less concern about actually televising the rants of a psychopathic killer. Toward the end of his story, Carter reports that "details of dealing with law enforcement and trying to decide what could be used on television accounted for NBC’s not covering the story until Mr. Williams’s newscast." Note the term "what could be used." Not "should it be used?" In fairness, NBC was not alone in taking that approach. Similar discussions apparently took place at the other broadcast and cable networks, which greedily snapped up (and aired) excerpts provided by NBC.

The folks at NBC (and First Amendment purists) would argue that it's a reporter's obligation to publish or broadcast news and images that are disturbing, even distressful. Refusing to do that, they contend, places the media on a slippery slope, providing a pretext for withholding information simply because it might upset or offend someone.

However, that argument only goes so far. Truth be told, there are a number of news images that broadcasters refuse to air, and rightly so. We don't see the bodies of dead soldiers in Iraq. We don't see the mangled corpses of Americans who die in traffic accidents. And, with rare exception, we don't see faces of women who testify against rapists. Broadcasting such images would be an affront to our collective sense of decency, and a violation of the victim's right to privacy.

There's also the (slightly quaint) notion that broadcast journalists shouldn't air video or images that only titillate, and don't advance the story. Meeting that goal is difficult in a visual medium which dictates that some video--any video--is preferrable to a talking head. Anyone who watches local TV news has seen the pointless helicopter shots of a "breaking" story (which only prove that the station has an expensive chopper), or the endless video "loops" of the cable news channels, aimed at placating the audience until they can arrange a live shot, or air a finished report.

By those elementary standards, the Cho diatribe was not newsworthy, nor suitable for broadcast. When NBC Nightly News aired in Blacksburg last night, there was genuine shock and horror. A community consumed by grief and mourning was sent reeling again because a TV network received--and elected to air--a killer's multi-media opus. That sense of shock and outrage is still reverberating across the Virginia Tech campus, the state, and the rest of the nation.

We can only imagine what the families and friends of the victims felt when they saw Cho Seung-hui posing with his weapons and ranting against the "rich kids" that sparked the rampage. Their pain was exacerbated by the knowledge that the killer mailed his package to NBC during the interlude between the dormitory shootings, and the mass murder at Norris Hall; one final, calculating act to firmly secure his place in infamy. To deny Cho's final, twisted desire--and out of respect for the victims and their families--NBC had solid reasons for not airing the video and still shots from his "package."

Likewise, the clips and images broadcast by NBC (and the other networks) did nothing to advance the story, or shed new light on events at Virginia Tech. NBC News President Steve Capus, who led the network's decision-making process, told Bill Carter that Cho's written material was dominated by "threats and gibberish." The video segments were much the same, as millions of viewers can attest. "It was incredibly difficult to follow," Capus observed. Simply stated, we learned nothing new by watching the material--it only heightened our national sense of revulsion and outrage.

Which brings us back to our original question. Why was it necessary to broadcast (and rebroadcast) this material? You don't need to see Cho's "manifesto" to understand that he was a sick, demented individual, consumed by hatred and rage. And he did not deserve a national platform to spew his venom; the senselessness of Cho's actions speak for themselves, without a post-mortem commentary from the killer.

Sadly, NBC's decision to air the manifesto (and share the material with its competitors) had less to do with journalistic standards, and everything to do with ratings. The dominance of its early-morning Today show is fading a bit; Mr. Williams' Nightly News has been eclipsed by ABC, and cable outlet MSNBC remains mired in last place. Matt Drudge's morning headline tells the real story: "Ratings Blowout for NBC." With the Cho package leading his newscast, Mr. Williams easily outpaced his rivals last night. I'm sure that Today and MSNBC are racking up some impressive numbers as well.

When that package arrived in the mailroom yesterday, NBC and its news executives had a tough call to make: cave to the pressure of ratings by providing a posthmous platform to a madman, or take a principled stand, and refuse to air the material. The decision of NBC--and its competitors--speaks volumes about the current, deplorable state of American journalism.


Similar thoughts on NBC's editorial decision from Hugh Hewitt and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner.


Angevin13 said...

Another well-reasoned and persuasively argued post. You're certainly correct to conclude that much of NBC's decision to air the video has to do with ratings - especially the decision to divide it between "Nightly News" and "Today." It certainly worked - I ordinarily would never tune in to MSNBC, but I found myself doing so for at least a little while last night. Sadly, today's media is a business, first and foremost. It's about entertainment, ratings and making money, and any other outlet would have done the same thing. It's a sad state, but it's the truth.

I disagree with you, though, on the point of it's "newsworthiness." It may be an affront to our collective sense of decency and doubtless is difficult for the family members of the victims. But I think it does advance the story. Many people - I for one - want to know just who this madman lunatic was, who was capable of such an appalling crime. Unless it puts lives in danger or directly damages an ongoing investigation, I think NBC has a duty to report the contents. I would, however, feel differently about airing and/or printing the stuff if the killer were still alive, at large, and was using the media for publicity or blackmail, for instance, like the Zodiac Killer.

I do feel strongly that the advertising and marketing of the video and "manifesto," like a movie poster, on the MSNBC webpage, was a mistake and I wouldn't dismiss out of hand the argument that NBC could have reported on the contents without actually airing the video.

But for the most part I think think NBC made the right decision to go public.

Toby Scammell said...

This is the first time I've ever seriously disagreed with you.

As Americans we like to hold our system of free speech up as an example for the world. In reality, there are so many limits on the information that the mainstream media will carry that most Americans only get watered down versions of stories.

This is part of the reason why we have difficulty relating to and understanding situations around the world. Instead of reporting information, our publishers/editors are always considering things like decency, vulgarity, etc. As a result, we can't understand why people hate us. We can't see the real pain that exists in the worlds darkest corners.

Psychologists tell us we can't show images of 9/11 anymore. Editors say that body piles in Darfur aren't "decent" enough for US public consumption. Our news media treats us like we're children. We censor nudity when we've all seen people naked. We censor swearing when most people swear. If the Nazi holocaust were discovered today our media would show us few images and even those would be censored with black boxes.

This whole concern for American sensibilities is ridiculous. On one hand, most Americans consume hours of violent, sex-filled, fictional content each year. On the other hand, there's this overbearing set of censors trying to control the nonfiction images we see. We don't show beheadings, bombing aftermaths, gore, blood or guts. As a result many Americans have little understanding of what it takes to win a war. More importantly, we forget the costs of losing a war.

Most analysts will argue--like the last commenter--that images like the VT massacre manifesto are shown because the industry's "about entertainment, ratings and making money."

This argument is totally backward. The reason images like this ARENT shown on a regular basis is because the industry is a business. The reason these videos and images will not be played more is because it's about the money. No that some people have been offended, the businesses will overreact and censor this story further.

Every time a news station reports something offensive, there's a backlash against the station. Nevermind that what they're reporting is fact. Nevermind that they didn't conceive the horror or orchestrate it.

Some will challenge the newsworthiness of such material. No doubt it's sick and twisted. But isn't that the point? Shouldn't the lesson here be that a) there are crazy people in this world and b) no matter what you do things like this will happen. Shouldn't the message be that the world isn't perfect and never will be? Shouldn't we all agree he's a determined asshole and there was little we could have reasonably done to prevent this? Then we could start paying more attention to the promising lives he snuffed out and relegate him to a footnote in history.

As long as we continue to attack the messengers for reporting information instead of telling Americans to take responsibility for what they watch, we'll be on the wrong road.

I for one, chose not to watch the video last night. I don't need to see it. He was sick, twisted, end of story. He doesn't deserve anymore of your or my attention. But don't tell me it's indecent or insensitive to show the material.
Because next time, all we'll hear is:

"3000 Americans died today in simultaneous terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC. In the interests of your psychological health, we've decided not to show you who did, how they did it, or any images of the terror they inflicted. In other news..."

Unknown said...

Toby, I respect your comments, but you forgot a salient point. In the case of 9-11, the networks have done just that. Not long after the tragedy, the broadcast and cable news outlets announced that they would no longer show some of the horrific images of that day, because they were disturbing.

If broadcasters are going to be consistent, how can they "censor" footage of 9-11, but air the manifesto of a psychopathic killer?

Toby Scammell said...

Agreed. They should be consistent. But given a choice between:

a)showing both the 9/11 footage, Iraq war images, terrorist images etc AND the manifesto or
b) censoring all of it

What would you choose?

I understand in both cases the images are painful to watch. But does remembering and understanding what happened have no benefits?

I think most Americans have forgotten how bad 9/11 really was, in part because the images are being buried. And I think that's having a direct impact on our foreign policy today.

Just one example...after WWII the Germans immediately vowed not to censor the truth of the holocaust. Today museums in concentration camps don't censor images of human medical testing, torture, emaciation, gas chambers or mass graves. And the holocaust echoes in our minds when talking about tyranny and genocide.

But does anyone doubt that a 9/11 museum would censor images of people jumping from the WTC? Will a War on Terror museum built decades from now show the horrors of Daniel Pearl's beheading? I doubt it. And as a result, 50 years from now our children will not understand the true magnitude of 9/11 or the true danger of Islamic terrorism.


I should note that I agree with you about the way in which these materials were presented--it was over the top and inappropriate. But I still think we need to stop encouraging the networks to censor the news we watch because it has trickle down effects.