Why NBC was right to show those demented ramblings
NBC News knew that it would be accused of failing to resist a scoop beyond its dreams, and of pursuing sensationalism
Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing
Most media scoops do not arrive in the morning post, having been dispatched in
the pause between two bouts of murder.
When NBC News decided to broadcast parts of the package of video and pictures
which Cho Seung Hui had chosen to send to it alone, the television network
knew that it would be accused of failing to resist a scoop beyond its
dreams, and of pursuing sensationalism and its own profit at the expense of
national sensitivity and safety.
It was. Victims’ relatives abruptly cancelled television appearances in
protest. The police, who saw the material before it was broadcast, later
said they were sorry that people who were not used to such images were
exposed to them. Others attacked NBC on the classic grounds that this would
give Cho the oxygen of publicity (an awkward metaphor, given that he is
dead), grant his wish for immortality and prompt copycats.
Yet NBC, which says it broadcast only after fierce internal debate, and
tightly limited the choice and repetition of the material, was surely right
to go ahead. People’s shock this week is understandable. But that has
brought a tendency to exaggerate the distress or danger of the broadcast,
and to dismiss the useful conclusions from seeing it — and even the
reassurance it gives.
Watching just a few minutes of the rambling manifesto of paranoia answers the
question the US has asked itself for three days: why did he do it? Cho was
clearly mentally ill, not simply a troubled student in a bad patch, or
someone who snapped under sudden strain; on its own, that is reassuring.
Nothing was impulsive, from the purchase of the two guns in two months, to
the obsessive assembly of pictures and speeches-to-camera in a digital
collage. The paranoia, the sexual and religious metaphors, the flailing
accusations at rich classmates and Jesus, the conviction that he had a
cancer of the mind — these tell us that the quest to “understand what made
him do it” is not going to take us far.
That answer might seem brusque. Yet the video shows how different Cho was from
his classmates and from the population (despite the mild American accent
which showed he had drawn something from the culture). He was not even much
like Islamic suicide bombers, although his recording resembles their final
messages, with the black terrorist garb and the weapons. But they spell out
their jihadist cause with faux-military succinctness; his had the coherence
of a bedroom stack of horror comics, ripped and pasted together. Virginia
Tech, and his classmates, might also find it reassuring that his sentiments
in the video were so well hidden behind his almost complete silence in daily
life, even if they leaked into his literature classes, to general alarm.
Nick Jeremiah, a graduate student, said of the video: “That’s got to be more
than he’s spoken, ever. I thought, ‘Well, he does talk’.” As one university
official pointed out, Cho’s room-mate had not felt cause to sound the alarm,
nor five others living close by, however clearly the video shows his
disturbance. But this also shows how hard it is to anticipate other cases,
although many now seem to be itching to demand this feat of foresight of
poetry teachers and counsellors.
The accusation that the NBC broadcasts may provoke copycat attacks — the most
serious charge against the network — appears to rest on a notion of severe
mental illness as contagious, common and predictable. True, someone who is
severely disturbed might want to better Cho’s “record” — but that does not
mean that if his video were kept off the airwaves that person would not find
other provocation. If only.
But given that a small proportion of people do have some severe disturbance,
Cho’s case does suggest that there might be more stringent bars to buying
guns than merely asking a purchaser, in a standard form about mental health,
to tick a box.The NBC clips reminded us about the unpredictability of mental
illness. It was right to broadcast them. But for those who found the
distress too great, after three days in which the world’s largest media have
shrunk themselves to a single subject, one option is simply to switch off.