For Virginia Tech Killer's Twisted Video, Pause but No Rewind
Monday, April 23, 2007
Journalism is about searching for answers. But what happens when there are no answers?
When tragedy erupts, reporters strive to put together the pieces. But what if the puzzle doesn't quite fit, and there's no one to blame but a single, twisted lunatic?
On "Good Morning America," news anchor Chris Cuomo said Wednesday from Virginia Tech that the challenge was "not just to explain the facts of the situation, but to learn, so that hopefully this will never happen again." And who could disagree with that? But the sad truth is, there's no surefire way to stop a determined suicidal killer, especially on a sprawling college campus.
The murder of 32 innocent people in Blacksburg, Va., last week triggered the usual media invasion and a spate of journalistic questions: Was there anything university officials could have done to stop Seung Hui Cho? What about his violent writing in English class, immortalized by the New York Post headline "PSYCHO PENNED POISON PLAYS"? What about the police who questioned him in 2005 after complaints from two women about unwanted calls and e-mails? What about the mental health facility that evaluated him as suicidal? And why was he allowed to buy guns after that?
Such questions speak to the natural human tendency to believe that evildoers can be stopped if better procedures are put in place. But that may be wishful thinking. Writing violent fiction is not against the law -- indeed, some authors and moviemakers have made a fortune doing just that. If Cho wasn't making specific threats, there was no basis to arrest him, or even expel him.
On his blog, author Andrew Sullivan calls this "a classic example of hindsight bias. The teacher flagged two students; one of them happened to turn out to be a mass murderer. But how many other college students have written things so creepy their teachers were worried about their sanity?"
As if on cue, television outlets booked opposing guests to debate gun control, despite a political climate that seems hostile to any congressional action. "Could Tighter Gun Laws Have Prevented Campus Massacre?" an MSNBC banner asked for several hours Wednesday. Other critics took to the airwaves to blame violent entertainment.
The debate took a dramatic turn Wednesday when NBC received that revolting video of Cho preening and prancing with his guns and ammo. The network made a basic journalistic calculation: If the country is hungering to understand the killer's motivation, what better way than through his own pictures and rambling diatribe? Trying to strike a balance between pursuing the story and offending viewers, NBC News President Steve Capus decided to broadcast about two minutes of the 25-minute tape and a handful of the 45 photos.
Within minutes, every other major American network made the same decision by lifting the NBC footage, which dominated the airwaves that night and the next morning. And so, in effect, did the nation's newspapers, by giving front-page play (in print and online) to the NBC photos, particularly the one of a menacing-looking Cho posing like some Middle East suicide bomber.
I have rarely seen the kind of angry eruption that followed. Friends and family of the Virginia Tech victims were furious, but so too were millions of Americans who saw the news outlets as giving Cho precisely the kind of notoriety he had been seeking, in precisely the way he had taped it. Why give this madman the posthumous satisfaction? Why immortalize his vicious acts? Why encourage potential copycats? Why take the focus off the 32 innocent people whose lives were snuffed out? (None of the three newsmagazines, interestingly enough, put Cho's image on the cover.)
Fortunately the networks quickly dialed back on the use of the video -- in part, I believe, because they were taken aback by the intensity of the reaction.
I understand the criticism, and there were other alternatives. Reading from Cho's twisted scribblings is one thing, but putting out perhaps 10 seconds of video and a couple of still photographs might well have sufficed. You didn't really need more than that to convey the essence of the awful material. Several commentators argue that putting the rest on the Internet, with a special link on the home page, would have made the video available only to those who affirmatively seek it out.
Still others say the video conveyed important, if painful, information. "Evil must be exposed, and Cho was evil," Fox's Bill O'Reilly told viewers. "You can see it in his face, hear it in his voice. All of us who saw the tape will never forget it."
Had NBC suppressed the material, there would have been criticism about dereliction of duty. It was newsworthy, by any definition, and journalists sometimes must do unpopular things in the pursuit of news -- airing interviews with America's enemies, for example. But for nearly a day, Cho's hate-filled taunts became video wallpaper, an endlessly looped Zapruder film, mocking us with its relentlessness.
Those who say the media went overboard at Virginia Tech may have a point, but the harshest critics are flirting with blame-gamesmanship: If only those blasted news organizations wouldn't cover bad things, maybe they wouldn't happen. And how would you curtail coverage of the most deadly gun massacre in American history, even if that were deemed to be desirable?
The media proved, as they did in the days after 9/11, that they excel at covering big, breaking news, freed from the need to pump up a minor melodrama involving Laci or Natalee or Anna Nicole and imbue it with national significance. There was precious little of the hype, speculation and exaggeration that often accompany such frenzies. And in a small way, the journalists who descended on Blacksburg, through their round-the-clock presence, took a step toward helping us heal from this most horrible of crimes.
It is not unlike someone jumping from the Yankees to the Red Sox, from General Motors to Ford. But when Par Ridder quit as publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press to join the paper's bigger rival, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he got hit with a lawsuit.
Dean Singleton, whose MediaNews Group owns the Pioneer Press, says in an interview that he "probably could have stomached" Ridder's defection, at least by itself. "When we found all the data he had stolen from us and downloaded to the competitor's computer, we found it despicable.
"I've known Par for a long time, had a lot of confidence in him, he was a good publisher. . . . I trusted him, and when you find out your trust was misplaced, it's very disappointing."
Ridder is the son of Tony Ridder, the former chief executive of Knight Ridder, which owned the Pioneer Press before selling itself into oblivion. He persuaded two Pioneer Press executives to join him, and the lawsuit says all of them are violating non-compete clauses in their contracts. (A judge ordered one of the executives suspended from her job Friday and authorized a search of at least a dozen Star Tribune computers.)
Ridder says in an affidavit that his non-compete agreement had been waived earlier and that he deleted a folder from his computer at his former employer's request.
"He promised me he would take nothing with him, nor would he take any people from the Pioneer Press," Singleton says. "I was as disappointed in him as a person as I was in the acts themselves." When he asked Ridder about his promise not to raid the staff, Singleton says, Ridder said he only meant on the day that they spoke.
Why would Ridder risk tarnishing his reputation by deserting a newspaper tied to his family for 80 years and joining the competition? Is this is how the Star Tribune's new owner, Avista Capital Partners, the first U.S. private equity firm to buy a major newspaper, plays the game? A Star Tribune spokesman says Ridder and the paper have no comment.
The Next Imus?
MSNBC is giving Michael Smerconish, a shaved-head conservative radio talker, a three-day tryout in Don Imus's former morning slot this week by simulcasting his Philadelphia show. Smerconish wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Imus should not have been fired, lamented "the cyber-lynching by faceless, nameless bloggers of talk-show hosts like me" and said he had been unfairly pilloried for using such phrases as "the sissification of America."