On holding back ugly realities

April 30, 2007

The smoke has yet to clear from the Virginia Tech murders, and questions remain about the slovenly response to signs of the killer’s deepening madness. Oddly, public reaction to suggestions that university authorities blew it badly has been muted. Not so the reaction to the performance of another vital institution: The media.

Two days after Cho Seung-Hui shot to death the 32 students and teachers NBC News received a package of video, photos and writings he had posted soon after his first killings. The network copied the materials, turning over the originals to law enforcement, and made ample use of images and words for itself and its cable affiliate, MSNBC. It also furnished materials to other news outlets, after branding the video with its logo.

The public responded with fury  directed not just at NBC and at cable channels that carpetbombed viewers with Cho’s images and words, but at newspapers that festooned their front pages with iconic pictures of the killer posed menacingly.

Stung and chastened, the media lurched into self-reproach mode and pulled back on re-running Cho’s mumbling and preening. But did the media do wrong in the first place? Should they, as many critics say, have withheld the material from the public?

The first criticism was that Cho’s so-called manifesto wasn’t legitimately newsworthy. It slaked a sordid curiosity, but was a narcissistic rant, exploitative to air, not informative.

But the material did shed light. It eliminated any number of possible motives, from xenophobia to sexual jealousy to religious zealotry. For me, as somebody who teaches college, it also raised serious questions about how an educational institution could be that obtusely unaware that a student was so depraved.

Besides, what was NBC’s alternative  declare the material insufficiently illuminating and announce that the public accept that the 25 minutes of video, 43 photos and 23 pages of documents authored by the person who had just performed the country’s most appalling mass murder contained nothing that was any of their business?
A second, and more powerful criticism is that airing the video would invite a repeat. Said Tony Burman, top editor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., one of few TV operations that embargoed the material: “I had this awful and sad feeling that there were parents watching these excerpts on NBC who were unaware they they will lose their children in some future copycat killing triggered by these broadcasts.”
Horrible, yes. But plausible? A newscast triggers mass murder? Face it, a typical young man in our country has spent decades marinating in revenge fantasies. An entire genre of popular culture endorses achieving justice through murder. News isn’t the culprit.

Besides, do you, as a journalist, skew your reporting toward the possible, but by no means likely, reaction of the most lunatic members of the public you serve?

Plus, wouldn’t copycats be driven to act by the overall coverage of the killings, by the immense impact of the crime itself? If it’s significance and validation they crave, wouldn’t we have to curtail coverage altogether? There’s nothing uniquely seductive about the self-pitying mumblings of the gunman himself.

And who can foretell consequences? In September 1995, the New York Times and Washington Post published a manifesto from the Unabomber, a man who’d been tracked for 17 years and whose letter bombs had killed three people and injured 23. He had vowed to kill others if the papers didn’t publish his 35,000-word screed.

Many of us feared the papers’ capitulation would embolden other nuts. Instead, the man’s brother recognized his words and tipped off the FBI, which the following April caught him.

That said, there’s still another powerful criticism of the news media in the Cho case. That’s a visceral sense that giving him that forum was simply wrong. He bought airtime with the blood of others. No matter what he has to say, we owe it to his victims not to hear.
As Clint Van Zandt, an ex-FBI profiler, said to MSNBC: “This is what this guy wants. He wants to be able to reach his hand out of the grave and grab us by the throat and make us listen to him one more time.”
That criticism is unanswerable. We can’t wholly deny Cho a celebrity he doesn’t deserve without denying his crime the attention it does. That’s unjust, and it’s no consolation to know that it’s in no way the worst injustice in this miserable affair.

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