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NBC bashed for unleashing a killer’s rants on its airwaves

Times Staff Writer

NBC’s decision to broadcast portions of Seung-hui Cho’s angry rants triggered a storm of condemnation Thursday from viewers and victims’ relatives, illuminating the treacherous middle ground between exposure and exploitation in a fast-moving news cycle.

A day after receiving a package containing the Virginia Tech gunman’s profanity-laced writings and videos, mailed shortly before his second round of shootings, NBC drastically curtailed its use of the images, as did most of its television brethren.

But the rapid dissemination of the materials and subsequent backlash triggered a debate about where the line gets drawn -- what constitutes news, and what goes too far.

Though media ethicists generally approved of NBC’s handling of the tapes, Tony Burman, editor in chief of Canada’s CBC News, called NBC’s airing of the footage a “mistake,” warning it could lead to copycat massacres.

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For others closer to Monday’s killings, the broadcast of Cho’s diatribes felt like a new wound. After initially praising NBC for cooperating with investigators when it received the package, Col. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said he was “disappointed” by the network’s decision to use some of the material.

The parents of two slain students canceled an appearance on the “Today” show in protest, and MSNBC.com’s message boards were swamped with more than 3,000 messages on the topic -- the majority criticizing the network.

“What is the standard?” asked one writer from Maryland. “Will we next be seeing beheadings and full-length terrorist propaganda films? There is a fine line between news and exploitation, between the public’s need to know and tastelessness. NBC crossed it.”

NBC anchor Brian Williams, who participated in the internal discussions about how to handle the material, acknowledged that initially the images inadvertently took the form of “video wallpaper,” until executives set restrictions on their use. (Late Wednesday night, NBC officials limited the broadcast of the video to 10% of airtime on the network and its cable channel, MSNBC.)

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But Williams defended the network’s dissemination of the footage, in which Cho rages against the wealthy and says he was pushed to violence.

“I don’t know of a reputable news organization in this country that, upon receipt of that package, would have ... slipped it in a drawer and not shared its contents,” the anchor said on his video blog. “It is beyond disturbing. It is beyond horrifying. It is also news, and news is our role, however unpleasant the stories are at times.”

Not everyone at NBC apparently agreed. “Today” anchor Matt Lauer told viewers Thursday morning that “there are some big differences of opinion right within this news division as to whether we should be airing this stuff at all.”

NBC News President Steve Capus said that though there were extensive deliberations about how to deal with the materials, he was not aware of anyone urging that they be kept completely out of public view.

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Capus said he believed the network exercised sensitivity and restraint in its handling of the images, noting that NBC waited more than seven hours after receiving the package before reporting on it, out of deference to investigators. Only after discussions with NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker and other top executives did the news division air a limited sampling of the materials, he said.

“I knew there was an awful lot of pain ... and we knew there would be people who disagreed with this decision,” Capus said. “I did not want to do anything to cause greater pain. We worked as journalists to present the matter in the proper light, and I think we did.”

The network first broadcast excerpts of Cho’s 28 QuickTime video files during Wednesday’s “NBC Nightly News,” along with images of the 23-year-old thrusting handguns at the camera. The material -- along with an 1,800-word rambling invective -- had arrived in the mail that morning, addressed simply to “NBC.”

The unexpected scoop handed NBC a major ratings victory. According to early data from Nielsen Media Research, the NBC newscast easily bested ABC’s and CBS’.

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For the most part, rival news executives refrained from criticizing NBC’s decision, saying that holding back the material would have been impossible because of its potential to leak online, where anything goes.

And long gone are the days when news outlets believed they could approach such decisions with leisure: The explosion of news and information sources has made the competition to stay ahead that much more intense, and created an atmosphere in which getting an exclusive scoop is a rarity.

“Information these days is like steam,” said Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S. “It escapes through the tiniest cracks. The notion that any piece of information ever can be sealed away, I think, is a relic of the past.”

Other media outlets also seized on the dissemination of the video, with TV networks quickly grabbing NBC’s footage Wednesday evening and putting it on their own airwaves. Newspapers across the country ran images of the gun-toting college senior on their front pages, with the network’s logo in the corner of the photos.

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But by midday Thursday, both broadcast and cable news networks had pulled back their use of the video, saying they feared the coverage was becoming gratuitous.

“Beyond the first news cycle, it becomes little more than pornography,” said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.

CBS News instituted a policy requiring an executive producer to sign off on any use of the footage.

“The most obvious danger is that it is offensive to relatives, to friends and to millions of Americans who have been emotionally affected by this,” said Paul Friedman, vice president of CBS News. “There is also a complicated argument about whether this somehow inures people to violence. Common sense tells me that it’s not worth taking the risk.”

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Officials at Fox News went further and midmorning Thursday stopped airing the images completely both on-air and online, barring further news developments. “I thought that we had sort of reached a saturation point,” said John Moody, executive vice president of news editorial.

This is not the first time media organizations have had to balance the news value of publishing a killer’s words against the potential harm in airing them.

After the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, law enforcement officials discovered videos of the teenage killers firing the guns they would later use to kill their classmates. In that case, police did not release the footage for more than four years -- and even then withheld other, more graphic videos for fear of inspiring copycats.

Cho’s decision to pause after his first shooting Monday and send what Williams dubbed a “multimedia manifesto” forced NBC to assess its journalistic value while emotions were still raw.

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While scores of viewers heatedly criticized NBC -- with many vowing they would never watch its programs again -- media ethicists said the network showed judiciousness by withholding news of the package until investigators announced its existence and then by limiting use of the video after reporting the initial story.

Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast and online ethics at the Poynter Institute, said not airing the material at all “would have been an easy thing to do.”

“People would have said, ‘Good for you,’ ” he added. “But that doesn’t illuminate us. That doesn’t enlighten us. That only protects us. And the job of the journalist is not to protect us from the truth; it’s to tell us the truth, no matter how repugnant it is.”

On his blog, Williams wrote that deciding what to do with Cho’s final words was “a role we did not seek and did not want.”

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“We are aware that this puts words in the mouth of a murderer,” the anchor added. “We are also aware that this danger, represented by this sick young man, lives among us ... and to see it and hear it is to understand the consequences.”

matea.gold@latimes.com

Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report.


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