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NBC's Sick Business Decision

By Jack Kelly

For the sake of a few dollars more, NBC has brought closer the day of the next public mass killing in America.

"This was a sick business tonight, going on the air with this," acknowledged NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams of his network's decision to air portions of the "multimedia manifesto" Cho Seung-Hui mailed NBC in the interval between his murder sprees on the Virginia Tech campus.

It was indeed a sick business decision. Mass killings inspire copycats. "School campuses in at least 10 states were locked down or evacuated in the aftermath of a Virginia Tech student's shooting rampage," the AP reported Wednesday.

NBC is not alone in its guilt. Every news organization which rebroadcast portions of the video, or newspapers (like mine) which published still photographs of Mr. Cho posing with his weapons is complicit.

We say we do this to protect "the people's right to know." The real reason, of course, is we hope the titillation will increase our number of viewers or readers.

But as we fatten our bottom lines, we send a message to every sociopathic loser: Wanna be famous? Go kill a lot of people. We'll put your face and your story and your alleged grievances into every home in America.

"The kid's going to get everything he wants, he's going to be immortalized," acknowledged Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media critic, in an interview Wednesday with radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

The wall to wall coverage of the massacre at Virginia Tech was providing encouragement enough to other sociopaths. The cable news networks thrive on disasters, which boost ratings. The broadcast networks emulate them by suspending regular programming.

The trouble is there is very little hard information to report in the early hours of a crisis, certainly not enough to fill all that air time. So it is filled with rumor, much of it false, and speculation, much of it nonsense. Virtually everything reported initially during Hurricane Katrina, for instance -- especially about the alleged murders in the Superdome -- turned out to be false.

Many in the media have expressed the hope the massacre at Virginia Tech will reignite a national debate on gun control. One was ABC's Brian Ross, who reported, falsely, that Mr. Cho used large capacity magazines for his two handguns (he did not), and that these had been banned by a 1994 federal gun control law the Bush administration let expire (they were not). This inspired MSNBC's Keith Olbermann to blame President Bush for the killings.

The difficulty with the gun control thesis, notes Quebec economist Pierre Lemieux, is that prior to 1960, guns were easy to obtain in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia, but public mass killings were rare.

Gun control laws have expanded greatly since then. But so have mass killings in all those countries. Of the many social changes in the West since 1960, perhaps the biggest is the ubiquity of television. Before then, it was hard for sociopaths to secure national fame by killing a lot of people.

Mr. Cho seems to have been motivated in part by the publicity given other killers. He mentioned Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (who killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999) in his manifesto. Police suspect Mr. Cho was trying to reenact scenes from "Oldboy," a South Korean film about a psychopathic murderer.

"A practical, commonsense way of reducing gun violence -- especially in schools -- would be a federal law prohibiting, or at least seriously limiting, the interstate reporting of serious gun crimes like Virginia Tech for five working days," suggested a poster at the Volokh Conspiracy, a blog devoted to legal issues.

No one seriously is proposing to violate the First Amendment in this way. "Person from Porlock" was parodying the enthusiasm of journalists for gun control legislation.

But a little self restraint would be welcome. The public would be better served if, barring new developments, the networks would restrict themselves to five minute reports each hour, with an hour or two roundup each night. They might then report more facts and less rumor.

Above all, we journalists must deny to the psychopaths the fame they seek. No more broadcasting or publishing of manifestos, or of images supplied by the killer, however much the sales department urges it. If we in journalism want to find the primary cause of public mass killings, we need to look in a mirror. But we journalists are too busy
searching for specks in the eyes of others to see the beam in our own.

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