There’s been a fair amount of handwringing over news stations’ decisions to broadcast America’s Craziest Home Videos, and my first impulse is to regard it as largely moot: Cho could just as easily have uploaded his rambling screed to a dozen video-hosting sites the morning of his planned massacre, tagged only with a keyword like “Ismail Ax” that would have made it unlikely to garner any viewers initially, but guarantee that they would be found and circulated after the fact. It’s probably only a matter of time before some lunatic-in-waiting does just that.
Still, insofar as TV does still guarantee a substantially larger audience, I guess I’m inclined to think that the right call would have been to sit on these. The downside to airing them, of course, is that it sends the signal that if you have a message you want to go out to millions of viewers, slaughtering a bunch of students is a sure way to do it. The putative upside is that, as Kevin Drum puts it, “they’re also a key part of helping us understand one of the biggest news stories of the year.” The thing is… they’re really not.
If there were really insights to be gleaned from these clips—”a window into the twisted psyche of a killer” and other such headline fodder—maybe the balance of considerations would fall the other way. But what’s perhaps most striking about Cho’s rant is that, divorced from his horrific rampage, there’s nothing at all striking about them. It’s obvious in retrospect that Cho was seriously, deeply deranged. But what I see on these tapes is not so much a madman as an idiot. Chilling in hindsight, his semi-literate jeremiad against Mercedes-driving snobs who had humiliated him and “raped his soul” is ultimately the stuff of bad high school poetry. Walk into a random tenth-grade creative writing class and you’ll hear the same pap from moody kids who’re never going to kill anyone outside of World of Warcraft. The only real gain from airing these videos is the satisfaction of our morbid curiosity—and, as it turns out, they’re not even that satisfying.
Update: Kevin replies:
First, maybe this stuff tells us something about Cho and maybe it doesn’t. But we’d never know if NBC decided to withhold the stuff, would we? Second, I just don’t want news organizations to be in the business of *withholding* information. That’s a very bad slope for them to slip down.
The news media are already standing at the bottom of the slope, and always have been. If they air this, they’re “withholding” whatever else would have aired in that slot. That investigative report on poverty in America might require “withholding” a heartwarming piece about an adorable puppy who fingerpaints in cuneiform. Maybe you think the Cho tapes are self-evidently more newsworthy. I think—and I can’t believe I’m the libertarian here—”newsworthiness” means more than “what will get lots of eyeballs glued to the set.” Obviously, you can disagree with the way the networks make the call. I think more uncensored video of what’s happening in Iraq is eminently newsworthy, and that giving the public a clear view of the situation there easily trumps any reservations about audience squeamishness. Still, making those calls is just necessarily what they do: You can (and should) criticize the substance of the decisions, but not whether they make them at all
I hear complaints constantly about something or other being disturbing or offensive to some particular set of people (often victims of crimes), but that shouldn’t drive news decisions.
I agree that whether the footage will be “disturbing” to some people shouldn’t factor importantly into the decision. I do think it’s worth weighing the real benefit to public understanding before you effectively reward narcissists who are transparently at least partly motivated by the desire to draw attention to their self-righteous blather, and the expectation that enough murders will do it.
Finally, virtually news organization in the world has shown this stuff. The fact that absolutely no one held back on publishing or republishing it should tell us something.
It should tell us that after the initial airing, the costs and benefits change, and all of those news organizations face a kind of collective action problem: The ratings pressure to air the video when all your competitors can and might is ratcheted up, and the marginal harm from jumping on the bandwagon dwindles, again especially if each station expects that most others are likely to do so. That doesn’t really speak to the wisdom of the initial call.