The Cho Videos Revisited

THE CHO VIDEOS REVISITED....Early Friday morning I defended NBC's decision to air the now infamous Cho videos. A short 12 hours later I complained that it was "well past time to dial down the Virgina Tech coverage." Over at Shakesville, Waveflux wants to know if I can reconcile these two views.

You betcha! Here's the thing: I'm not making any special argument about how NBC should have presented the Cho images. (In fact, I didn't even see the NBC newscast.) We have more options today than we did ten years ago, and I'm pretty open to the idea that NBC should have merely explained the tapes, maybe showed the images briefly, and then told their viewers that the full package was on their website for anyone who wanted to see the whole thing. No exploitation, but full disclosure.

Because it's the disclosure that's important. I may not like the fact that this story has become such a media circus, but it has — and news organizations simply shouldn't be in the business of withholding information about important stories just because they think certain people might be disturbed by it. After all, this wasn't a routine news judgment about whether a particular story was worth covering, or whether a couple of sentences should or shouldn't be added to an existing story. It was obviously blockbuster stuff, and one or two guys sitting in New York shouldn't decide for the rest of us whether we even get to see it. That's a slope I really don't want to see the media sliding down. After all, next time they might decide to withhold something you want to see.

But was it just violence porn? To Cho it probably was, but the fact is that the rest of us really did learn something from it. First, we learned — really learned — just how disturbed Cho really was. No words could possibly have the same impact as seeing it, and that makes a difference when we're asking whether Cho should have been allowed to buy a gun or whether the university should have been more proactive in getting him help. Second, we learned that he apparently wasn't motivated by any particular event or belief. He wasn't doing it for Allah, as not a few people have speculated, and he wasn't doing it because of distress over global warming. He wasn't mad at George Bush or Nancy Pelosi, and he didn't do it because he thought the Columbine kids were really cool. That stuff is all worth knowing, and we'd never know it for sure if the NBC guys just assured us there was nothing there but wouldn't allow us to see it for ourselves. Again: keep in mind that next time they might be withholding something gruesome you want to see — like, say, Abu Ghraib photographs. Wouldn't you prefer to decide that for yourself?

Moving on: does releasing stuff like this encourage copycat behanvior? People are forever making hoary claims about this, but I've seen little evidence on this score and I'm skeptical anyway on the general grounds that people are almost always suspiciously partisan in their beliefs about the power of media to influence behavior. Liberals think violence is bad but don't care about porn; conservatives think porn is bad but don't care about violence. By immense coincidence, both sides are convinced that the stuff they care about influences society (badly, natch) but the stuff other people care about doesn't. In this case, people who don't think the videos should have been released have suddenly decided that maybe it inspires copycats. Well, maybe it does, but before I buy in to this I think I'd like to see some serious supporting evidence rather than just urban legendish speculations. Cho certainly doesn't seem to have been copyin anyone, for example. (Though we only know that because we've seen the video rants.....)

So that's that: Yes, the videos should have been released because they have legitimate news value, but no, that doesn't mean they have to be splashed on every newscast and front page coast to coast. That's where news judgment comes into play.

Now then: how about the Alec Baldwin tape? Should news organizations have given that the time of day? Or held it back?

  • CBSNews

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