Black day at 30 Rock? It's a tough one to callLet me start off by admitting I'm no psychiatrist and don't even play one on TV. But I minored in psychology in college, so to my mind that's qualification enough to go out on a limb and declare that we really don't learn much from studying the lunatic posings and crazed ramblings of paranoid mass murderers in the throes of homicidal meltdown.
This might come as a revelation to those at NBC News, though I'm guessing not. On Wednesday, when it received that package of video, photographs and writings from Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui, the euphoria inside the organization had to be palpable. It must have been like winning the lottery without having to so much as purchase a ticket, the largesse seemingly as random as Cho's bloody rampage.
The dubious gift dropped on NBC's doorstep reportedly sparked immediate hand-wringing inside the news division about what to put on the air. NBC News president Steve Capus insisted that it was about weighing the value of the material as vital information vs. the perception of glorifying a madman. My guess is that it was something closer to this: "Can we withstand the crapstorm that running this could trigger?"
In the end, the desire to broadcast an edited video of Cho's rantings, along with stills of him posing threateningly with various tools of his lethal trade, proved too great. Was NBC merely glorifying a lunatic by broadcasting the equivalent of violence porn — parlaying his SpewTube rage for a ratings bounce — or was it incumbent on the network to share its bounty in the interest of full disclosure?
Capus reasoned last week that NBC had "an obligation to give people a glimpse inside the mind of this killer." I'm not so sure. I wonder how many people who saw it instantly felt a greater sense of understanding, as if witnessing Cho's manic outburst produced the clarity and insight they'd found previously elusive.
I've gone back and forth on this, measuring the network's responsibility to its viewers vs. crass commercialism, the potential for inciting copycat behavior vs. the danger of a news organization opting to withhold information. My conclusion is that NBC News should have held it, but I understand why it didn't — and it wasn't necessarily wrong.
My knee-jerk reaction had been far more cut-and-dried, that to release the Cho video in particular was journalistically untenable and pure exploitation. I thought it shameless to grant Cho his media superstar moment via his malignant manifesto. And it appeared disingenuous for NBC to couch it as a matter of public interest, as if sprung from a sudden burst of altruism.
However, time has furnished me with shades of gray. A valid argument can be made for having released portions of the Cho material. My friend Joe Rhodes, an L.A.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to the New York Times and TV Guide, noted to me in an e-mail that NBC "absolutely HAD to show it" and insisted "there's not an editor/producer in the world who would have done otherwise."
He's probably right. While I believe there's a middle ground between self-censorship and the "publish or perish" imperative, the truth is that had The Hollywood Reporter received the same package exclusively that NBC did, I have little doubt that we would have published the photos and posted the video on our Web site. I'd have fought it and lost.
The heated moral/ethical debate is a healthy thing indeed. Even if Cho Seung-Hui has a smile on his face today in hell, our preoccupation at least shows we still care deeply about right and wrong.