Taking A Step Back In The Cho Debate

(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
The debate over the media's handling of the Seung-hui Cho manifesto continued over the weekend – CNN's "Reliable Sources," for example, devoted its first two segments to whether the media did the right thing in airing the materials.

There is one way of looking at this issue I have yet to see get much attention, however, and it has to do with what we allow in our culture and what we suppress. Those who object to the airing over the video, such as Hugh Hewitt, have called doing so "reprehensible" and suggested that "NBC will have blood on its hands the next time someone sends a video to their network of their mayhem."

That's certainly a valid position, but I have to wonder about its implications. The manifesto, no matter what you think of it, had news value – it was the last communication from the killer at the center of a huge story. You may feel, as Hewitt does, that the pictures and video didn't really tell us anything, but that's a subjective judgment; I do feel that my understanding of Cho's motivations was enhanced by what I saw, and so, presumably, do people like Dave Cullen, who wrote an insightful piece in Slate comparing Cho to the Columbine killers.

There is, then, something to be gained from the release of the materials, just as there is, potentially, something to be lost. It strikes me that that's more than can be said for some of our more violent cultural products – movies, video games, and television shows that glorify violence in much the same manner Cho seems to have wanted to. (It's worth noting here that Cho was apparently inspired, in part, by the movie "Oldboy.")

If, as a culture, we want to suppress the Cho manifesto, than we have to ask ourselves what else we are willing to suppress. After all, the Cho materials at least had some value beyond entertainment; it's harder to say the same for cultural products like "Grand Theft Auto" or "300." It seems to me that anyone criticizing NBC News for releasing the materials – and CBS News and its counterparts for airing them – should be thinking long and hard about how far down that path they are willing to go.