It is not journalism’s job to be safe or to make the world safe for our consumption. It is journalism’s job to tell us uncomfortable truths.
So I’ve come to think that NBC made the wrong decision about the Virgina Tech shooter’s tapes: They should have released the worst of them. For that would force us as a society to grapple with the issues we’re still sidestepping: How can our laws and systems keep a clearly insane and dangerous man out of treatment and in the public? How can we justify laws that value his privacy — the most overexploited buzzword of the age, I say — over his safety and sanity and the safety of those around him? How can we have laws that prevent the school from telling his parents about his problems and telling the rest of us what happened in his case, even now? If NBC showed how utterly deranged this murderer was, then I hope we would have an outcry to change the One-Flew-Over-the-Cuckoo’s-Nest laws that purport to protect but only harm the insane and those around them. But NBC won’t do that because there reportedly is an outcry (though one should always be skeptical about what media labels an outcry) against their decision to release what they did.
Yet I’ll argue that by choosing to release only the safest elements of this sick collction, NBC made the killer look less dangerous, perhaps even sympathetic or cartoonish. Compare the image with the latest cover of Wired (and, no, of course, the parallel is not that they’re Asian; it’s the fictional nature of both I’m pointing to, each a character in a media narrative).
If, instead, NBC had shown the most vile of Cho’s rants, we would see just how dangerous he obviously was. We would ask the hard questions about why he was allowed to do what he did. And if you’re worried about copycats, I also think that the bilious Cho would be less likely to inspire aspiration than the cartoonish Cho we now see. To those who argue that NBC is only giving Cho his wish — fame — I say they are doing worse: They are cleaning up his image.
Now I’m not saying that NBC should show these images all the time, looping the horror, forcing it upon us. Thanks to the web, they don’t need to show them on the air at all: They could give us the option of seeing them online. Does that appeal to our worst nature? No, it shows our worst nature and the argument can be made that we must face that. By not facing that, we are raising, not lowering, the danger of copycats, of the next nut who’ll be allowed to slip through our laws and systems because we wouldn’t want to offend anyone.
It is not NBC’s job to be safe. But it is NBC’s job to be popular and in this case, that’s unfortunate. I normally reject the arguments of those who want news to be a not-for-profit enterprise. I say that the news must face its marketplace. But this is one instance in which the quest for ratings, popularity, and profit can affect journalistic judgment. Still, NBC did release some of the images and tapes. If they had wanted to be utterly safe, to offend absolutely no one, they might well not have put anything out, or they could have punted that decision to government. Some say they did this for ratings, but I have to believe they knew this would not be a popular decision in many quarters. So they did release some of the tapes. I say they released the wrong ones. If there were ever a story that required uncomfortable truths, this is one.
: See also Dave Winer on this in various posts. And see Michael Markman’s take (but also please see his apology for a tasteless allusion to my views in the comments on that post).