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 minutes between his rampages, and whether broadcasting the contents of the killer's package was appropriate.
It's a fair question, and a scenario which will likely come up in journalism ethics classes for the next 30 years, in much the same way as 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 the killer, Cho Seung-Hui, should be off-limits in reporting on the carnage at Virginia Tech. He apparently mailed a CD-ROM of his deranged ramblings and creepy photos to NBC after his first round of cold-blooded murders. Upon hearing about it, one of my friends wrote me and said, "I can't bring myself to read about it, simply because the media is going out of its 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."
While the kind of sensationalistic coverage we've been seeing the last few days is regrettably symptomatic of these types of tragedies, I'm not sure how this could have been handled any other way in modern media. The question isn't really should these images have been broadcast at all, but what happens to these images now, 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 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 caskets. Secrets no longer keep, whether it's 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 remains far above the sleazy, Nancy Grace-style armchair quarterbacking CNN has seen fit to air, in which she asks with false sincerity and condescending tones how shooting victims "felt" while watching their classmates being gunned down, and posing snide, loaded, impossible-to-answer questions to humiliated and grieved university and law enforcement officials.
That kind of bottom feeding, sensationalistic "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 programming these days at CNN.
As far as the killer's CD-ROMs and maniacal diatribes are concerned, I'd say they're relevant to the story, however unpleasant or shocking they may be. I wouldn't call bringing attention to the treatment of the mentally ill or our nation's runaway gun epidemic a platform for a killer's beyond-the-grave grandstanding.
The killer's diabolically sad ramblings are, in fact, a terrible, gross reality, 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 months like a recurring nightmare. What's not up for debate is this – whether a perceived or admitted illness is mental, ego-based, or psychotic, it's no secret that easy access to guns and weapons of war enables behavior.
I agree the bar for TV news coverage of tragedies continues to be lowered by individuals like Ms. Grace and Geraldo Rivera, and the creeping sensationalism of network TV news is a consultant-driven attempt to mirror the 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 networks into the next news cycle. Feeding the beast comes first, and accuracy is a convenient coincidence if it happens along the 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 long ago 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 have been absent 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 recalls Sharon Tate as a victim, but Charles Manson's legend has only grown despite decades of being locked away.
The same holds true for Timothy McVeigh, who more or less was able to name the date and time of his death, and have ample time to prepare for it and 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 Remington 700 ADL, Remington Model 141, Universal M-1 carbine, and other weapons from the school's clock tower before being shot to death by Austin police. People remember him and the sensational nature of his crime, not to mention the pecan-sized tumor found growing against his brain during the autopsy. But they don't remember his victims.
It's the same with the videos and writings that surfaced in the wake of the Columbine murders, which apparently "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 seconds.
But as someone who isn't crazy about the easy availability of handguns and the culture of gun fetishism, I'm still not sure what would've prevented this. Cho Seung-Hui bought his Glock and Beretta handguns in a perfectly legal manner at a local firearms store, sat out the mandatory waiting period, and had no criminal record and therefore no red flags. He was just another guy in Virginia buying guns. Gun purchase laws, no matter how well-intended, aren't designed to prevent something like this. An assault rifle clearly is not needed to inflict this level of mayhem and death. There isn't any more reason it happened this time in Blacksburg than anywhere else.
Until we can cure the larger symptom of gun fetishism in the U.S., which I fear will take generations and many more innocent lives, this will keep happening – and at the current rate, happening every few weeks.
However driven he may have been by a lifetime of humiliation at the hands of others, aggravating his already tenuous mental state, perhaps there was some inevitability to the Virginia Tech killer's behavior. If he didn't have guns, perhaps he would've used hunting knives or high explosives (like Oklahoma City in 1995 or the Bath School Bombing in Michigan in 1927), but as I stated above, it's the easy access to firearms that clearly enabled his behavior with an immediacy no other weapon could.
As was so creatively displayed by Michael Moore in his 2002 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, seldom has these kinds of mass killings? That's the real symptom which needs to be addressed in the United States. Why do Americans, or those who grow up in American society, have these mass-killing meltdowns, while the rest of the western world largely does not.
Another friend 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 to make the public aware. But 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 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 a grossly iconic pose of a deranged man convinced the best way to live beyond his years was 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 first Battle of Bull Run in the opening days of the Civil War in 1861.
Tackiness and a 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 can just turn on Nancy Grace or Geraldo or Maury Povich for your daily lack of self-awareness. The problem is somebody keeps watching this junk and keeping them 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 how can you have ready access to guns 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 someone committing a crime with a gun thought, or cared, they might be caught? Certainly not Cho Seung-Hui. Surely it was the last thing that crossed his mind even as his murders ended and he moved to take his own life.
A San Diego County planning commissioner and former radio host and media personality, Tommy Hough works as an environmental consultant and communications professional, and is a California Democratic Party delegate and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.