By Tommy Hough
In the wake of the Virginia Tech killings, there's been controversy about how NBC chose to report on the materials the killer sent the network in the hours between his rampages, and whether or not broadcasting the contents of the killer's package was appropriate. It's a fair question, and a scenario which will likely be coming up in journalism ethics classes for the next 30 years, in much the same way coverage of the R. Budd Dwyer live-TV suicide in Pennsylvania was handled in 1987.
Some people I've spoken with feel anything from the killer should be off-limits in reporting on the carnage at Virginia Tech. Should television networks not air the deranged ramblings and creepy photos of Cho Seung-Hui, apparently mailed to NBC after his first round of murders? One man wrote me and said, "I can't bring myself to read about it, simply because the media is going out of it's way to give a dead man a platform. This 'manifesto,' with his photos and CD-ROMs, isn't news, and their proximity or timeliness to the story doesn't make them news."
Though the man who wrote me states his point well and the kind of sensationalistic coverage we've been seeing the last few days is regrettably symptomatic of these types of tragedies, I can't see how this could have been handled any other way. The question isn't even really should these images have been broadcast or not, but what happens to these images and how will they be manipulated once they've entered the public consciousness, where they can be accessed, downloaded, exploited, photoshopped, saved onto computer drives and even added into popular music or art.
You can't suppress images anymore; ask the fools who tried to hide the facts of Abu Ghraib or the photos of killed-in-action GIs returning to Dover Air Force Base in flag-draped coffins (why is this administration so ashamed of this nation's war dead, anyway?). Secrets don't keep anymore, whether it's chickenhawk Karl Rove hiding e-mails or something you sent around on the office intranet.
Let's be proportional, too. The quality and ethics of NBC's coverage of the materials the killer sent them is still far above the kind of sleazy, Nancy Grace-style armchair quarterbacking CNN has seen fit to air, in which she asks with false sincerity and condescending tone how shooting victims "felt" while watching their classmates being gunned down, and posing snide, loaded, impossible-to-answer questions to already humiliated and grieved university and law enforcement officials. That kind of trailer park journalism is what bothers me. It's not about facts, it's about how you felt about the facts, and in the case of law enforcement, why you didn't read your crystal ball better. This is what's apparently passing for journalism these days at CNN.
As far as the killer's CD-ROMs and maniacal diatribes are concerned, I'd say they're absolutely relevant to the story, however unpleasant or shocking they may be, and I'd hardly call bringing needed attention to the treatment of the mentally ill a platform for a killer's beyond-the-grave grandstanding. The killer's twisted, diabolically sad ramblings are a terrible reality as well, the same as the nightly display of carnage from Iraq, and we'd better learn from these things and figure out how to prevent them, because they will happen again every couple of years like a recurring nightmare if we don't come to terms with mental illness awareness as well as easy access to guns and weapons of war.
I agree the bar for TV news coverage of tragedies continues to be lowered by bottom-feeding sleaze merchants like Ms. Grace and Geraldo Rivera, and the creeping sensationalism of network TV news is just an attempt to mirror the younger-skewing, ignorance-dwelling beast of cable TV "news," which long ago abandoned reporting news as a primary function, and are now solely about perpetuating themselves and their network into the next news cycle. Feeding the beast comes first, and the truth is a convenient coincidence if it happens that way.
Instead of aspiring to be like the Big Three network news divisions of the golden days of hard-hitting, honorable 60 Minutes-style broadcast journalism, cable TV news has embraced speculation over fact, and is unwilling to admit it often takes a long time to get a story straight and figure out exactly all the details. The days of fact before fiction, truthful Edward R. Murrow standards or even Peter Jennings-style humility and decency have been kaput on the cable dial for years. The fact that this corresponds with the rapid abandonment of shame in our culture and the persistent dumbing-down of America is no coincidence.
An average person might be able to tell you the names of one or two of the 9/11 hijackers before they can name any of their 3,000 victims, unless they are personally known to them. In the 1969 Manson Family killings everyone remembers Sharon Tate because she was reasonably famous, and of course Charles Manson's legend has only grown over the years despite being locked away.
The same holds true for Timothy McVeigh, who even got to more or less name the date and time of his death, and have ample time to prepare for it and even record a final statement. The same with Charles Whitman, the man who pinned down the University of Texas for several hours one day in 1966, and murdered 16 people with a sniper rifle from the school's clock tower before being cornered and shot to death by Austin police. People remember him and the sensational nature of the crime, not to mention the pecan-sized tumor found growing against his brain during the autopsy, but not his victims.
It's the same with the videos and writings that surfaced in the wake of the Columbine murders, which apparently even influenced the Virginia Tech killer. The cult around serial killers is endless: the Night Stalker, John Wayne Gacy, Son of Sam, Jeffrey Dahmer. An albeit well-crafted movie was recently made about the Zodiac killer, whose body count, however tragic and senseless, was peanuts compared to what the Virginia Tech killer inflicted on his classmates and instructors in a matter of minutes.
Furthermore, as someone who isn't crazy about the easy availability of handguns and the general gun culture in this country, nothing would have prevented this. Cho Seung-Hui bought his Glock and Beretta handguns in a perfectly legal and reasonable manner at area firearms store, sat out the mandatory waiting period because he wasn't in a hurry, and had no criminal record and therefore no red flags. He was just another guy in Virginia buying guns. The fact that it's easier to get a gun in Virginia, legally or illegally, than nearly every other state in the union is completely irrelevant.
Gun purchase laws, no matter how noble and well intended, simply aren't designed to prevent something like this. You clearly don't need an assault rifle to inflict this kind of mayhem and death, and the reality is this could've happened anywhere. There isn't any more reason it happened this time in Blacksburg, Virginia than anywhere else.
Until we can cure the larger symptom of gun insanity in the U.S., which will take generations upon generations, this kind of thing will keep happening every few years – or at the current rate, every few weeks. However driven he may have been by a lifetime of abuse and humilaition at the hands of others, aggravating his already tenuous mental state, the Virginia Tech killer was going to break and eventually hurt people regardless. If he didn't have guns, perhaps he would've used hunting knives, throwing stars or high explosives (like Oklahoma City in 1995 or the Bath School Bombing in Michigan in 1927), but access to guns enabled his behavior with an immediacy no other weapon could.
As was so creatively displayed by Michael Moore in his 2002 Oscar-winning feature Bowling for Columbine, why is it a country like Canada, which per capita is as armed to the teeth as the United States and has a similar frontier heritage culture, never has these kinds of mass killings? That's the real mental health symptom which needs to be addressed in the United States – why do Americans, or those who grow up in American society, have these types of mass-killing related meltdowns every couple of years, while the rest of the world by and large does not.
Another person wrote me and said, "no one would know about these idiots [recent mass killers], but their 'manifesto' was released to the media." I disagree. Reasonable, sensible journalists, as well as the sleaze merchants of the world, bloggers, whomever, will seek out and find these things, in part because they are relevant materials and components of the story, and because it is journalists' job – good and bad – to make the public aware. How these materials are presented says a great deal more about the network or organization presenting it.
Yes, presenting photos of this disturbed young man as some kind of an action figure for the insanely armed is utterly irresponsible, and even NBC couldn't pass up the photo of Cho Seung-Hui with his arms outstretched from the camera with a firearm in each hand, striking what may be a sadly iconic pose of a deranged individual convinced the best way to live beyond his years is by inflicting tragedy and destroying lives. Unfortunately, with good journalism comes yellow journalism. It's a tradition dating back to William Randolph Hearst ("I'll give them a war.") in 1898, or D.C. area newspapers advertising a garden party-like gathering to watch the Battle of Bull Run in the opening days of the Civil War in 1861.
Tackiness and lack of shame used to be measured in the amount of time it took for a tragedy to become a sensational TV movie or runny paperback at K-Mart, but now you just turn on Nancy Grace or Geraldo or Maury Povich for your daily lack of shame. The problem is, somebody keeps watching this junk and keeping these idiots in business.
Here's a harder question. Do we need a death penalty in this country as long as people have access to firearms and are willing to commit crimes with them? I don't like the death penalty and I don't care much for guns, but you can't have ready access to guns in this country without having some kind of deterrent to using them.
The problem is – the death penalty isn't used as a deterrent today, it's used as retribution, and when's the last time a guy committing a crime with a gun thought, or even cared, if he was going to be caught? Certainly not Cho Seung-Hui. Surely it was the last thing that crossed his mind even as his slaughter ended and he moved to take his own life.
Tommy Hough is a San Diego media personality, California Democratic Party delegate (AD-77), president of SDCDEA, and the former morning host at 91X radio.