NBC becomes part of story
Net wrestles with airing killer's mailed videoNBC on Wednesday received photographs and profane, rambling videos and writings from the man who killed 32 people in this week's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, apparently mailed in the two hours between the first and second shooting incidents.
The network immediately notified the FBI and at the authorities' request didn't disclose it until late Wednesday afternoon. The network aired portions of the killer's video and photographs on "NBC Nightly News" on Wednesday and was poised to air more this morning on "Today" after hours of discussions with local and federal law enforcement and heated debates within NBC as to whether the network should air all, none or part of the material.
NBC News, behind closed doors and on the air, weighed its responsibility of airing Cho Seung-Hui's rambling vitriol and the disturbing images that accompanied them, including photographs of Cho aiming the weapons that he eventually would use to carry out the attacks Monday.
"We have decided to show people a glimpse of that because we believe we have an obligation to give people a glimpse inside the mind of this killer," NBC News president Steve Capus said in an interview late Wednesday. "He is responsible for a hateful, despicable act, and as soon as it happened, people asked the questions: 'Why? What led this person to do that?' I don't think we'll ever truly know, but I do believe that this is as close as we will ever come."
Capus said he is inclined to make sure that the raw video never airs and said the network discussed every possible option, including not airing any of it.
"We haven't just put it out there for all the world to see," Capus said. "We sat on this tape and this manifesto all day long while we worked all day with investigators, and that was the right thing to do."
One journalism expert who saw NBC's coverage said it appeared that the network had spent much time trying to determine where the line stood between the public interest and being manipulated by a murderer.
"They were clearly trying to exercise as much sensitivity as they could while still meeting their responsibility to try to tell people," said Tom Rosensteil, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "There's an overriding public interest in trying to understand this young man and this tragedy."
He added, "If the video is no longer telling you anything new, and it's just being run to keep you watching, then you are actually serving the need of this killer, who is trying to haunt and taunt us."
The large, oversized envelope — which was sent by Cho from a Blacksburg, Va., post office by Express Mail on Monday shortly before the second stage of the killings — was sent to NBC at "30 Rockefeller Avenue" and included the wrong ZIP code that kept it from arriving at the network until Wednesday morning.
The return address was noticed by a suspicious letter carrier who was delivering the package to 30 Rockefeller Center and notified NBC security. The network, which six years ago suffered a security breach when an anthrax-laced letter was sent to NBC News by still-unknown assailants, opened the package with gloves and other measures to keep employees safe and everything intact.
Inside the envelope were two items: a DVD that included 27 QuickTime video files of about 10 minutes total, an audio segment and 43 still photographs apparently made by Cho plus a 23-page document with words and pictures. One photograph showed Cho aiming two handguns. The computer files were created as many as six days before Monday's rampage.
NBC News executives said Wednesday night they were keenly aware of the controversial nature of the decision with which they were faced. There were multiple conversations about sensitivities and ethics in the halls of NBC News before it was aired; there are several parts that won't be disclosed.
"We know we are in effect airing the words of a murderer here," anchor Brian Williams told "Nightly News" viewers.
Capus said there were no scenes of the murders but added, "There's plenty not appropriate to release or show."
Once the package was received, response followed on two tracks, with the FBI and NYPD removing the original for further analysis and NBC News poring over the DVD and paper with an eye toward eventually airing a portion of what Williams called "a multimedia manifesto." NBC agreed to authorities' request to keep a lid on the existence of the document for several hours; it was announced at a news conference in Blacksburg and confirmed by NBC News soon afterward.
NBC broadcast several disjointed pieces of Cho's ramblings after a vetting process that included top NBC executives and the network's standards and practices. NBC several times had to censor some of Cho's diatribe.
"It's the ramblings of a deeply disturbed person, and it's very upsetting to read and watch," Capus said.
Several of the photos showed Cho aiming the pistols at the camera. At least one image showed a handful of hollow-point bullets on a desk and one was of Cho raising a hammer over his head.
NBC and federal authorities believe Cho sent the letter at the local post office by Express Mail after the killing of two people at a Virginia Tech dormitory at 7:15 a.m. but before he went on a bloody rampage at a classroom building that claimed the lives of 30 students and professors. NBC News showed a copy of the envelope where a postal clerk wrote "9:01 (am)" — about a half-hour before the second stage of the killings began.
It appears NBC was the only network to receive such a package from the shooter, but it wasn't clear why only NBC. It was not addressed to any one person.
ABC, CBS and CNN did not receive a package, though those networks were scouring their letters and packages to make sure. NBC's Capus said he had no idea why NBC was singled out.
It's not the first time news organizations have received communications from killers, though rarely if ever this premeditated after the killer was no longer alive.
In 1995, with the cooperation of law enforcement, the New York Times and Washington Post published the so-called "Unabomber Manifesto" of Ted Kaczynski.