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MASSACRE AT VIRGINIA TECH: MEDIA

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

April 20, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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.

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.)

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.

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'.

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."

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