By Tom Shales
Thursday, April 19, 2007
As broadcast and cable networks appeared ready to step beyond decent boundaries of saturation and repetition yesterday in their coverage of Monday's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, the story suddenly turned shocking new corners -- and took on strange new life.
Most startling, the killer confessed, on videotape, from the grave.
Almost as if orchestrating coverage of his own crimes, 23-year-old student Cho Seung Hui paused between his first and second shooting episodes Monday to mail photos, writings and video of himself to NBC News in New York. The first bits and pieces from among 27 video clips aired on last night's edition of "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams.
Earlier, though, NBC released to its affiliates a still photo that could become instantly iconic -- a self-portrait of Cho in which he is dressed in black, brandishing two handguns and wearing a dark baseball cap backward. Those old enough to remember might have been reminded of an eerily similar photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a rifle -- an image that was circulated soon after President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
Terrible, tragic news stories often end up being compared with works of fiction, though -- partly because, it would seem, people can distance the stories that way. And the difference between how Cho looked in the photographs he sent to NBC (wearing commando gear and brandishing various weapons) and the only photo previously available via TV and the Internet (him looking meek and anonymous) particularly evokes the drastic change that came over Robert De Niro's character in the 1976 film "Taxi Driver." The character, Travis Bickle, rails against the world's moral corruption the way that Cho did, and radically changes his appearance when he seemingly sets out on a mission to assassinate a political candidate. The mission doesn't go as planned, but Bickle precipitates a bloodbath nevertheless.
Williams told viewers that the package had been sent via overnight mail Monday from a Blacksburg post office and that because Cho had written the wrong Zip code on it, delivery was delayed a day. NBC lawyers, executives and journalists pored over copies of the contents after sending the original materials to the FBI, Williams said.
NBC apparently did not share the contents of the package, including the video, with other networks, but at the end of "Nightly News," Williams -- sounding not unlike a carnival huckster at that moment -- told viewers to be sure to tune in the "Today" show for more excerpts, more ravings from the dead killer. Some of the images also aired immediately following "Nightly News" on "Hardball" with Chris Matthews, a nightly news-talk show on NBC-owned cable network MSNBC.
"I didn't have to do this. I could have fled," Cho says on the videotape, which also includes angry rambling that Williams called "incoherent." Cho accuses unnamed conspirators of persecuting and menacing him and says that because of what others have done, "I die like Jesus Christ."
It isn't clear whether Cho is speaking literally or metaphorically, but in strictly journalistic terms, it was a stunning twist in a story that the networks were coming very close to overplaying -- one that was relying on a limited supply of video images that networks repeated and repeated.
Networks also reported yesterday that a Virginia state judicial official, reviewing Cho's psychological history more than a year ago, signed documents declaring him a danger to himself and to others -- but this was not as visual as the story's other material and didn't get as much play.
The most alarmingly underplayed story in weeks was yesterday's Supreme Court decision banning some forms of abortion. CNN treated it almost as an afterthought, delaying any details while an anchor laboriously interviewed a former FBI agent who had nothing of value to contribute to the Cho story. Because the interview was about the mass shooting, however, the Supreme Court story had to wait in the wings.
Until the package arrived at NBC, the story had almost started following what might be considered a template for national tragedies, a series of stages that has become dismayingly familiar: the initial shock; reaction to the event; essays on historical perspective that keep the story in the forefront of news; and, finally, criticism of the media for how the story has been played -- or, more likely, overplayed.
The Virginia Tech tragedy was clearly about to enter that last phase when the prototype was shattered, and in a uniquely 21st-century way. There was the amateur video, a 22-page typed "manifesto" and 29 artfully arranged photographic illustrations (believed to have been taken by Cho himself) to go with the essay. There were also photos of Cho looking menacingly into the camera. In some pictures, he is armed with a gun; in one, he holds a hammer. In another photo, he aims a gun not at the camera but at his own head.
A New York post office employee, seeing the return address on the Express Mail label, personally carried the package to NBC; it ended up on the desk of NBC News President Steve Capus, who was heard in a telephone interview on "Hardball" last night. Capus told Matthews there was "no indication" why Cho sent the package to NBC instead of the other networks, or to all of them.
It wasn't the first time NBC News has found itself involved in the stories it covers. During the big post-9/11 anthrax scare, then-anchor Tom Brokaw was among those targeted with mail containing the deadly chemical. NBC employees were issued an antibiotic treatment to counteract the anthrax if anyone was exposed to it, leading Brokaw to close one newscast by saying, "In Cipro we trust." Cipro was the brand name of the antibiotic.
Even when coverage of a tragedy lacks new developments, some viewers continue to watch, fascinated and spellbound -- even if they are seeing the same pictures repeated as if on a loop. It's perhaps a way of managing the unmanageable, of dealing with the unbearably sad and horrific, just as when we all sat spellbound before our television sets during the 9/11 tragedy. The attacks lasted one morning, but we stayed with television and its validating images for days -- not so much processing information as absorbing it, translating a seeming nightmare into reality.
Yesterday, CNN was still showing footage that a student took with a cellphone -- a clip CNN first aired Monday. The network then benefited from new footage -- two Swiss students who happened to be visiting Virginia Tech and were strolling on campus with cameras on Monday morning brought CNN their video of police fanning out near one of the campus buildings. The students also videotaped an injured woman whose body was put into the back of an ambulance.
The young men, interviewed by Wolf Blitzer, said they had no idea at first what they were videotaping. They thought maybe it was a practice exercise, they said, and they even made jokes and laughed about it.
No one, of course, is laughing now. And yet it's almost too sad to cry.