Should NBC Have Aired Virginia Tech Killer’s Videotape?

April 19th, 2007 10:15 PM

When is something clearly newsworthy clearly not newsworthy?

Interesting question, wouldn’t you agree?

Like millions of Americans, I watched the Virginia Tech killer’s videotape yesterday with shock and horror. (Please be advised: I refuse to use his real name, or publish pictures of him, for reasons that should be obvious, and wish all members of the media would adopt the same anonymity strategy when referring to this animal.)

I was at my athletic club when clips of it were making the rounds on the various networks after originally being broadcast on the NBC “Nightly News.” Groups of half-dressed men, some with only towels around their waists, stood staring at the television sets throughout the locker room gazing mesmerized at the screens like moribund ghosts.

I imagine like many Americans, when the shock wore off, it was quickly replaced by anger.

What was NBC News possibly thinking?

Was this necessary, especially so soon after the massacre, and before the victims had been properly and respectfully buried? What kind of a world do we live in where a bloodbath such as this can happen, and within 48 hours, the assailant can have a video played on national television like the debut of a new Madonna tune?

Obviously feeling the heat for its decision to air this disgraceful piece of celluloid, NBC News issued a statement on April 19: “We did not rush the material onto air.”

Really? NBC News president Steve Capus told Chris Matthews on Wednesday’s “Hardball” (video available here):

I saw a copy around 12:00 noon.  And I guess by the first word that went out was at the same time that the Virginia authorities had the news briefing this afternoon at 4:30

Wow. They actually sat on this story for a full four and a half hours. How commendable.

Of course, Matthews didn’t have the – ahem – guts to ask Capus that which most Americans would have loved to: Why the rush, Steve?

Were they worried the killer had sent the tape to multiple news organizations, and that they could get scooped? Was there any thought given to calling the families of the victims to get their feedback or, dare I say it, permission? Did they consider the possibility that airing this so soon would send a dangerously provocative message to other desperately disturbed individuals around the country?

Seemingly addressing these very questions, “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams posted a video at his “Early Nightly vlog” explaining some of the rationale behind Wednesday’s shocking broadcast. In a four minute, seventeen second pseudo-confession, Williams stated that the decision to air the killer’s videotape was the right one because every other press outlet covered the story, adding:

I don’t know of any reputable news organization in this country that upon receipt of this package would have given it to law enforcement as I think we all would have, but then slipped it in a drawer and not shared its contents – its thematic, overall contents – with the viewing, listening, or reading public.

Fabulous. Don’t you love it when adults use the “Everyone else would have done it, too” defense?

Regardless of this absurdly patronizing explanation, we’ve now seen the video, and, as a result, this animal is destined to become a cult hero.

How long is it going to take for a song to be written about him by any number of anti-establishment musicians out there propping him up as a fine example of how to properly rage against the machine?

Or for t-shirts with one of those gun-toting pictures of him silk-screened on the front and back to make it to your local mall?

Or for a movie about his life – glorifying his final dastardly deed as a symbol of his grand struggle against a society trying to hold him down – that is sure to win an Oscar as the Academy makes another in a seemingly endless series of preposterously offensive political statements?

Face it: the Virginia Tech killer is now a star instead of a cold-blooded killer that should be despised and reviled like the lowest form of vermin walking the planet.

Of course, NBC News isn’t completely to blame, for this might have happened even if they had done the right thing, and turned all of this information over to the authorities putting it away in a drawer afterwards without airing one single second or picture.

However, this video is now at YouTube, and being broadcast over the Internet probably thousands of times while you’re reading this piece.

As such, this killer’s moment of fame has been dramatically extended, much like a Broadway musical that is more successful than anticipated, making his fate significantly more appealing to other disturbed youngsters in our nation desperately craving attention.

Is this overstating the seriousness of the issue? Maybe. However, throughout the Middle East, poor, unemployed Muslim youths are strapping bombs on themselves to kill innocents in the hope of earning some fabulous reward in their afterlife like seventy-two virgins.

That’s probably not enough to entice someone in this country to commit such a heinous act. However, maybe the airing of their own video broadcast coast-to-coast on national television during prime time assuring them of an everlasting fame far greater than they’ve ever imagined is.

Apparently, the folks at NBC News didn’t consider this in the four and a half hours it took for them to get this abomination on the air.

I’d like to think I speak for millions of stunned Americans wanting to know “Why not?”