Virginia Tech, NBC News, the media, and the making of another anti-hero

I come at this as a former professional journalist and as someone with empathy for victims of trauma (sometimes the two are not mutually exclusive).

As a journalist, my ears perked up yesterday afternoon when I heard that NBC had a package from the lunatic who so violently shot up Virginia Tech on Monday. The 6:30 broadcast last night, therefore, got one more viewer than it normally would. To that end, with the tease and then the delivery, this was commercial journalism at its most crass and I was soon a regretful consumer.

While it is hard to imagine grieving families watching the news, in these painful hours so soon after Monday’s horror (although they might), there are thousands of Virginia Tech students and faculty who – in my experience with trauma I can guess – will have seen the NBC broadcast and, therefore, been re-traumatized beyond measure:

  • seeing the gunman, they know now to be dead, alive and at his most delusional – and not just in a grainy still-photo
  • the gunman pointing the barrel of one of his weapons into a camera lens (his re-creation of the last horrible thing his victims experienced)
  • the gunman striking monstrous poses with his body, his guns, and a knife to his throat
  • the gunman recording his way, via psychopathic rants, into the sordid history of violence and narcissism
  • the gunman invoking the names of the Columbine killers as ‘martyrs’

Even this point-form synopsis is infuriating.

Immediately after Brian Williams’ release last night of what he called “a multimedia manifesto” (nothing too sensationalizing there!) CNN reporters, and all the other networks I presume, were only too happy eager prepared to show the NBC peacock logo as minor compensation for distributing this madness more widely.

Thank goodness I dumped Fox News from my cable line-up as I can only imagine how much more over-the-top than CNN they would have been.

CNN was horrible enough!

Wolf Blitzer, he who manages to speak in sentences longer than even I can write, gushed about the “disturbing” tape and pictures he showed (as did all of his colleagues) while, within the same program segments, interviewing victims’ parents, family members and friends right there in his perch on the Virginia Tech campus. Unbelievable!

The disappointment, as expressed by police and other Virginia Tech authorities this morning, was practically shouted down by media hordes demanding to know all and sundry details of the investigation. The messengers were clearly feeling wounded.

This morning, eighteen hours after the damage was done, NBC News fell leaned dangerously on its sword – ethically, if not morally. I would link to the corporation’s online statement directly, via a link, except that it appears side by side with the offending videos and photographs it purports to be now showing with greater restraint.

NBC News statement on gunman video

Network to limit airtime for material, acknowledging ‘immeasurable’ pain
NBC News

Updated: 11:43 a.m. ET April 19, 2007

NBC News issued the following statement Thursday in regard to the materials it received from the gunman in the Virginia Tech shootings:

The pain suffered by the Virginia Tech community and indeed the entire country is immeasurable.

Upon receiving the materials from Cho Seung-Hui, NBC News took careful consideration in determining how the information should be distributed. We did not rush the material onto air, but instead consulted with local authorities, who have since publicly acknowledged our appropriate handling of the matter. Beginning this morning, we have limited our usage of the video across NBC News, including MSNBC, to no more than 10 percent of our airtime.

Our Standards and Policies chief reviewed all material before it was released. One of our most experienced correspondents, Pete Williams, handled the reporting. We believe it provides some answers to the critical question, “why did this man carry out these awful murders?” The decision to run this video was reached by virtually every news organization in the world, as evidenced by coverage on television, on Web sites and in newspapers. We have covered this story — and our unique role in it — with extreme sensitivity, underscored by our devoted efforts to remember and honor the victims and heroes of this tragic incident. We are committed to nothing less.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive

CBC Newsworld has been telling viewers not without debate even before today, of its corporate and editorial decision not to broadcast many of the images and tape, citing concerns from consultants who fear inspiring misguided, though hardly unimaginable, copycats. Bravo!

The horrifying images we can recall from the Columbine tragedy, as well as some of our own Canadian examples, have undeniably – it would seem – inspired cult followings of gamers, at the very least, if not film creators and a variety of sociopaths.

The tragic figure who unleashed his depravity on the Virginia Tech campus last Monday said as much – from the grave, thanks to the media.  Sadly more may follow.

Ah, freedom! Without responsibility it can be a most reckless thing.

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