On Wednesday NBC News chose to air portions of video, photographs and documents sent to Rockefeller Plaza by Cho Seung-Hui in the hours between his initial dorm-room shootings and the subsequent classroom massacre at Virginia Tech on Monday.
While introducing the package on Wednesday night, anchor Brian Williams was careful to emphasize that NBC News had agonized over the decision to air portions of the video and select photographs. He seemed sincere about the concerns that NBC would be sensationalizing the moment.
“We know we are in effect airing the words of a murderer tonight,” Williams said as he introduced reporter Pete Williams.
But those words were not just of a murderer. They were of a sick man who had regressed so far into delusion that he considered his actions necessary. He claimed he had no choice but to slaughter the 32 people who became his victims. Airing the video ultimately was disrespectful to the victims and their families. It also was exploitative of Cho’s condition and that of all severely mentally ill people.
The effect of releasing such material goes far beyond the simple circuit of broadcaster and viewer. Now loosed upon the world, people soon will morph these files into all sorts of statements to serve their own agendas, both positive and negative.
No broadcaster can control how its work is used in this age of cheap and easy editing technology and distribution. But every broadcaster should expect the worst. And with this material, that’s precisely what it will get.
We will soon see irresponsible, hateful mashups on YouTube. We will see sick attempts at humor, bigoted jokes about Korean immigrants and chilling calls to violence. And we will see a proliferation of hateful material that will be an assault on the mentally ill and their families.
All over the country, families of mentally ill people are worried that because of Cho’s attacks and his frightening visage on our screens, our society will further turn against their loved ones, moving from malign neglect to outright hostility.