What Good Could Come From Airing the VT Killer’s Video?

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By: Dennis Byrne

So, what does it say about NBC that a sociopathic mass murder selected the network to let him get in the last word by airing his dangerous and perverted tapes.

If I were the decider at NBC, I would have said, “Not on my network, jerk.” Instead, NBC played into this murderer’s hands, and thus makes itself an accomplice to his horrific acts, by flooding the country with his images, making him a hero for every nut job in the country. When the shots ring out the next time, and students die in their classrooms, I hope NBC executives remember.

This opinion is from a journalist who has more than three decades of experience as a columnist, editorial board member, editor and reporter at three major Chicago newspapers — the Tribune, Sun-Times and Daily News. This is from a journalist who always felt strongly that our job is to inform and enlighten a public that has a right to know.

But like all rights, the freedom of the press is not absolute, and it certainly ought to be subject to wise and prudent decisions by those who practice the profession. That’s why it’s called a profession.

One critic of NBC’s decision is Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and ABC News consultant, who appeared on “Good Morning America” today. Sure, that’s a competitor’s network, but it’s still worth quoting him at length:

I promise you the disaffected will watch him the way they watched “Natural Born Killers.” I know. I examine these people. I’ve examined mass shooters who have told me they’ve watched it 20 times. You cannot saturate the American public with this kind of message.

It’s not an issue of blame. It’s an appeal [to the media]. Please stop now. That’s all. If you can take [talk show host Don] Imus off the air, you can certainly keep [Cho] from having his own morning show.

They turn themselves into icons. They get articles written about themselves in The New York Times. This is perversion. We have to send a message to alienated people, you know what? You hate everybody around you? You’re paranoid. You’re sad. You’re depressed. But these people are perverts.


Welner let the media off easy. By the end of the day, I’m willing to bet that scientific polls will show the public vastly opposed the airing of the tapes, even though the public sat transfixed, watching. Maybe it’s hypocrisy on the part of the public, but that doesn’t make the criticism of NBC any less valid.

But however the public views us is a digression from the real issue: How do we, as journalists, make our decisions in the public interest? Certainly, disclosure of all information in our hands (it apparently doesn’t much matter how it got there) is not an absolute and automatic rule for most news outlets. Every outlet points with pride to when it withholds information in the public’s or individual’s interest. The wide agreement to not publish the names of rape victims comes to mind. And the disciplining of Geraldo Rivera for disclosing battle plans during the Iraq invasion on live TV is another.

So, the wide acceptance of the principle that some information should not be printed or aired is not what is at issue. And the wide acceptance of the issue makes NBC’s decision even more heinous. True, even if NBC had withheld the images, it’s possible that they might have been leaked by someone else, and would have escaped into the public realm anyway. But, that excuse is a dodge when deciding whether I’m going to be the one to do it and, not incidentally, do it first.

Today, in the age of the Internet and instant communications, such a decision is irrevocable. There’s no correcting this mistake. By now the images have traveled around the world uncountable times, have been replayed and replayed, etched in people’s minds. And into the minds of future murderers.

Oh, yes, I know all the arguments about how journalists can’t and shouldn’t be psychiatrists. We’re communicators, and if we don’t communicate, we’re not doing our jobs. The New York Times and Washington Post, for example, pondered long and hard about whether it should publish the Unabomber ranting and when they did, it ultimately led that murderer’s capture. So, good emerged from that decision.

So, maybe someone in our business can explain to me what good will come out of NBC’s decision.

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