04/19/2007 10:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

NBC's Tough Decision, Made Tougher On No Time

As predicted, yesterday's decision by NBC to air the videotape, photos and writings of Cho Seung-Hui has resulted in a huge national discussion — another huge national discussion — about whether or not they ought to have aired it, and under what circumstances, and so soon. Last night's broadcast was only half an hour long, with only excerpts made available (heavily edited, and agonizingly so, according to NBC News president Steve Capus on Hardball last night), with more revealed today on the "Today" show — for which NBC is getting more flack, since it looks like a naked grab for ratings (whether or not that was part of the decision, which of course NBC says it was not). That did not matter to some family members scheduled to appear this morning on "Today" — who cancelled as a result of NBC's decision to air Cho's video.

In the meantime, TVNewser reports that NBC has pledged to spend only 10% of airtime per hour of broadcast — a maximum of 6 minutes per hour — but who cares? The cat is already out of the bag in a big way — the other networks have picked it up, and there is extensive documentation available on MSNBC (with a highly-justified warning before every page) (they show a carefully-selected five pages of Cho's 1,800 word accompanying document, complete with embedded photos). Reaction is coming in from all sides; last night, blogs were on fire with reaction, mostly against NBC's decision, with fear of copycats and glorification of the killer and a sense of exploitation (there is a good round-up and response from Captain's Quarters going through both sides, and coming down on the side of freedom of information). On TVNewser, a "trusted observer" writes in that NBC made the right decision in the name of serious journalism; Canada's CBC News' editor in chief disagreed, calling it a "mistake." Tim Goodman at the San Francisco Chronicle isn't really sure how he feels about it — he sees both sides — but still, it makes him uncomfortable.

It makes everyone uncomfortable — but is the news supposed to make us comfortable? Could anything about this news possibly do that? No. There is no way. This is certainly the creepiest and most unsettling turn one can imagine the case having taken — a "multi-media manifesto" that Charles Manson could only have dreamed of — produced on the cheap in a dorm room, because these days, it's just that easy. Which means it's easy to slap it on the web in its own multi-media showcase (available for multi-page browsing at, and easy to put it on the air as breaking news. I say "easy" in the technical sense; NBC's Capus and Brian Williams have made it clear that this was not a welcome task, as did Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira in discussing the decision this morning, noting how the newsroom was split. But still, "easy" makes it harder to argue against doing something, and gives you less time to do so — which is why, while everyone wonders why it was necessary for NBC to have aired the package so soon, Goodman characterizes it as sitting on breaking news. That's how things are framed when things are "easy."

So what should NBC have done differently? Should they have ignored this material, this crucial evidence about what exactly made Cho do it? No — that's an editorial decision they're not entitled to make — news breaks and you report it, good or bad, because that's the job. But did they have to air it so soon — or at all? No. They could easily have reported on its arrival, reported on the contents, consulted with victims' families, consulted some experts on what its impact might have been. Hell, they could have slept on it. They didn't. Instead they ran enough footage and showed enough images to get the message across plenty — no matter how that message might be received. A CNN viewer tells me that last night, Anderson Cooper interviewed an expert who said yes, there WILL be copycats...and then looped back to the footage right after. Courtesy of NBC, of course.

Courtesy of NBC on all the networks now, splashed across the web, across this website and all the others — a many-headed hydra of word and image, a genie you can't put back in the bottle. It's a pretty big genie to release on a couple of hours' notice.

There's no doubt that this was a tough, tough call to make. On the one hand, NBC did turn the package immediately over to the authorities, and were given the official go-ahead to air it. On the other hand, wow — this is heavy stuff, and sudden, and fraught with many complexities, none of them trivial. I admit that I watched NBC News last night, flew straight to the web to look at the package, because I wanted to see, and to know. But did I need to? Yet? Of course not. And did the juggernaut of viewers who flew to NBC last night to crush in the ratings need to? Of course not. We needed the news — just maybe not so much of it, and maybe not so soon.

Package Forced NBC To Make Tough Decisions [NYT]
Gunman handed NBC an exclusive and a quandary [LAT]
Psychiatrist: Showing Cho's Video Is "Social Catastrophe" [ABC]
Should NBC Have Aired The Cho Package? [Captain's Quarters]
For NBC, an exclusive ethical challenge [Baltimore Sun]

NBC Statement Explaining Use of Video [TVNewser]

VTech Killer Sent Package To NBC News [ETP]

Reconstruction of events:
'That Was the Desk I Chose to Die Under' [WaPo]