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Airing Cho 'manifesto' was a very 'tough call'

Sometimes some people will be angry no matter what you do

NBC News in the hot seat
April 19: Bitter backlash against NBC News and the media for running materials from the Virginia Tech gunman. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asks MSNBC analyst Craig Crawford, commentator John Ridley, and the Center for Media and Public Affairs’ Matthew Felling if the media made the right decision.
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Steve Adubato
Media analyst

Sometimes a news organization must make a really tough decision—and no matter what you do, some people will be angry and say you made a mistake.  Our job is to “report the news” even when it is unpopular, uncomfortable or even when it hurts innocent people who are already suffering.

Consider the decision by NBC News to broadcast the so-called “manifesto” by the deranged Virginia Tech killer, Cho Seung-Hui.  It first aired at 6:30 Wednesday night after hours of discussion, debate and negotiation with law enforcement authorities.  NBC News decided to release a portion of the video, photos and writings of Cho.  In opening the broadcast, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams said, “We are sensitive to how 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.” 

It was “profane” and it was “gross.”  It was also scary and painful to watch.  One could only imagine what it was like for the families and friends of the 32 Virginia Tech victims murdered in cold blood on campus.  Some of the family members decided not to appear on the “Today” show to express their displeasure with the network’s decision.  Forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Wellner, called on NBC News as well as other broadcast and Internet outlets to “stop showing this video now.”  Wellner said showing the video was a “social catastrophe.”  Others argued that showing visual images of Cho could potentially encourage others to engage in copycat killings. 

I’m convinced that NBC News president Steve Capus and those involved in this “tough call,” as he described it, considered these and other points of view.  Additionally, NBC News immediately notified law enforcement authorities when the package was delivered to Rockefeller Plaza in New York.  NBC News turned the originals over to the authorities in case they could help in the investigation.  They also agreed to hold off airing the contents of Cho’s package until given the okay by the police at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. 

Still, some disagree with NBC’s decision, which is understandable.  But there is another side to this complex media and moral dilemma.  Consider these questions and issues: Was the information in the package newsworthy?  Did the public have a right to know what was in it—even if some say they didn’t want to see or hear it?  Was there value—as uncomfortable and creepy as it was—to see Cho in his tortured state?  Could airing the video spark a meaningful discussion as to how such a tragedy could be avoided in the future?

With all these and other issues and questions at play, broadcasting this material was the most appropriate thing to do.  Not a perfect choice, but the right one given the alternatives. 

Of course there are legitimate concerns about the degree of coverage once the video and pictures started airing on Wednesday night.  Media saturation is a product of the 24/7 news cycle and the intense competition between news organizations.  Wall-to-wall coverage of Cho’s sick image was featured by every news outlet.  On Wednesday night it was virtually non-stop.  You couldn’t get away from it.  I have three sons ages 2, 4 and 14, and my wife and I tried to keep the little ones away while trying to explain it to the smart but vulnerable teenager.  How do you explain senseless brutal violence, particularly when it takes place in a school?

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