Machiavelli in the Anchor's Chair

In the wake of the worst-in-American-history murderous rampage on Virginia Tech’s campus, I was surprised at the so-called “backlash” against the media (NBC in particular) for explicit coverage of the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho — and stunned with the major TV networks’ universal caving in to it. And I don’t mind telling you, I smell a rat.

According to many sources, the peacock network was criticized by Virginia Tech staff, victims’ family members, and Virginia police for broadcasting disturbing (though not graphic) photos and video Cho himself sent to the network in between his dual shooting sprees on the morning of April 16, 2007.

Soon after broadcasting portions of these, NBC — and its competitors, all of which were running the same images within minutes — felt enough “pressure” to cease disseminating them…

Or DID they?

Over the next few minutes, I’ll put forth a very different theory about why we’ve seen so little about the twisted young man who, in the span of a single fateful morning, rocked our national sensibilities so much — and why this is a bad thing…

From Story Breakers to Story Makers

After 1999’s Columbine High School shootings, the major media speculated and reported for weeks about the motives and actions of gunmen and mass murderers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris — printing and broadcasting every image, word, or theory they could get their hands on, whether it was accurate or not (as it turns out, the vast majority of it wasn’t ). A similar thing happened after the Challenger disaster. It was all-shuttle, all the time, for weeks.

I also seem to recall the 2004 beheading of civilian contractor Nick Berg in Iraq getting near-endless coverage in the major media for days after it happened. Consider also the 24/7 airtime the Chandra Levy disappearance, the Scott Peterson investigation/trial, and the Natalee Holloway disappearance commanded. Though all terrible occurrences, none of these events is anywhere near as important as the Virginia Tech massacre in terms of loss of life and cultural significance…

So why have we seen or heard virtually nothing in the major media about Seung-Hui Cho since less than 24 hours after NBC first aired just a fraction of the images and words the killer himself intended as his legacy?

Whether it’s right or not that we should see the whole, undiluted truth about the Virginia Tech massacre (or any another significant event) is not a question the media should be answering for us by choking off the flow of information — no matter how distasteful or disturbing it may be. That’s for every person to determine for him or herself, via his or her TV remote control or newsstand dollars.

As it always has been, the major media’s job in the wake of any breaking news is simply to report. Yet in the case of the Virginia Tech massacre, the mass media managed to make the story about THEMSELVES instead of about Seung-Hui Cho. In the last few weeks, we’ve heard more about the media’s so-called “restraint” in reporting on the killer than we have about the murderer himself, it seems.

And if I’m right, at least one network (NBC) has spun the horrific carnage in Blacksburg into a corporate PR strategy that not only boosts its image and profile — but also effectively muzzles all of its competitors in the news marketplace…

At the expense of our need to know the truth.

NBC’s Checkmate Move

According to an MSNBC interview with NBC news anchor Brian Williams, it was a “sick business” to have to air the photos and footage of Seung-Hui Cho the station received…

Yeah, I’ll bet it was just tortured about being the only network in possession of these words and images. And if it could give back the revenue it raked in from being an integral part of the Virginia Tech massacre story, I’m sure it would. As we all know, ratings are meaningless to TV news shows — CBS’s hiring of Katie Couric proves it, right?

Come on, who is NBC kidding with this grim-faced grandstanding? At the end of the day, the news is an industry — a half-billion-dollar-plus annual cash cow for the Big Three networks, according to a recent New York Times article. And regardless of whatever outcry NBC did or did not get from Virginia Tech staffers or victims’ families, I’m certain that ceasing to air the materials Cho sent the network was a business decision, not a moral one…

Here’s how it makes dollars and sense for the peacock network:

For NBC to voluntarily yank its images of Cho — AFTER those critical first 12 hours or so, when most people get their information — let it accomplish three objectives, all of which are good for the bottom line and image relative to its competitors:

  1. It allowed NBC to seize ownership of a larger, longer-legged part of the story. Its “restraint” positioned it as the leader of journalistic integrity and responsiveness to the community, and the fact that it curtailed its coverage — ostensibly out of concern for the bereaved and to avoid encouraging copycat killers — gave it the undisputed moral high ground while every other network fought for its scraps…
  2. It negated the ability of other networks to level criticism at NBC for sadistically milking the story for every Nielsen point. It makes sense that any news outlet that didn’t get first crack at Cho’s warped legacy would try to lay some editorial fire on the only guys who got the story, in hopes of spurring a groundswell of condemnation on radio airwaves and in letters to the editor columns nationwide…
  3. It effectively prohibited NBC’s rivals from whoring the story for all it was worth. No news network’s image would be best served by looking like a sleazy, amoral shock peddler by running 24/7 rehashes of content it didn’t even originate after the story’s undisputed leader so nobly limited its own coverage of the nation’s largest mass murder…

Now do you see how cutting off the Virginia Tech story at the knees was a brilliant “checkmate” business move for NBC?

Do you also see how it’s likely that this kind of Machiavellian bottom-line strategizing could color everything we see or hear (or DON’T see or hear) in the major media?

If not, you need to wake up. Now.

Anonymity Breeds Contempt

Regardless of the True Hollywood Story behind why NBC self-censored its broadcast of Seung-Hui Cho’s own inchoate jumble of words and images and bile and hatred, there’s a vitally important reason why every network should be showing us every bit of this stuff in all its uncut and shocking sickness — regardless of the impact to the profit and loss statements…

It’s because we need to stare into the black, soulless eyes of a killer, so we’ll recognize that murderous gaze if we ever encounter it in anyone else.

We need to see the delusions of grandeur evident in his poses, so we’ll know the menace that posture portends in others.

And we need to hear in his own twisted words how this madman saw the world and his place in it, so that those words will ring in our ears should we ever hear them again.

Think about it. Everyone’s talking about how no one saw the “warning signs” with this guy — or if they were seen, how no one ever thought they’d lead to something so evil. Well, if NBC and the others would just DO THEIR JOBS, we’d all be able to see, hear, and judge these signals for ourselves in the future. Yes, this process might often be egregious, sensationalist, and milked to the last penny or Nielsen point…

But that’s better than the alternative: having no idea at all what the face, voice, and demeanor of mass murderer is actually like.

And as important as it is to know — or at least have some idea — what a killer is made of, it’s perhaps more important that we form an impression of what such a person ISN’T made of. As much as seeing what factors add up to a tendency toward massive violence might allow us to prevent such a tragedy in the future, might not this knowledge also enable us to realize the innocence in things that might’ve made us cringe had we not seen the real face of death?

Many believe that for the media to level so much coverage and discussion on mass murderers is to immortalize them and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. These folks believe that were it the media’s MO to render these killers eternally anonymous, they would have less incentive to blast their way to infamy. Whether there’s any truth to this or not, I cannot say. But what I can say with some degree of certainty is this…

If it were the major media’s policy — either mandated by law or by voluntary self-censorship — to reveal as little as possible about those who kill, leaving the public with no impression of them whatsoever, might not we imagine that every disgruntled employee (postal or otherwise) is on the brink of a shooting rampage?

Or that a modern Jack the Ripper lurks inside every jilted lover?

Or that every writer of twisted, macabre prose is Mr. Hyde incarnate?

Or that everyone who owns a deer rifle is plotting for the day he “climbs the tower”?

It’s my belief that hiding the identity, face, nature, and history of those who kill is to render most everyone a potential killer in the eyes of his neighbor, or even himself.

And regardless of the reasons driving the media to report — or even exploit — the lives and deadly legacies of killers, we must still see in as glaring as possible contrast all the ways in which we’re NOT like these maniacs…

Or else our paranoia will become the impetus that isolates and breeds more of them.

Jim Amrhein
Freedoms Editor,
Whiskey & Gunpowder

May 15, 2007