Responsible journalism

When Michael Moore tried to ask Roger Moore what responsibility he felt to Flint, Michigan, he got a simple answer. I’ll get the same answer if I suggest that media companies like NBC ought to invest more heavily in public service programming (for instance by dropping Imus and his imitators), that major corporations ought to forego cheap foreign labor to keep Americans employed, that oil companies might legitimately be asked to pay some sort of windfall tax, or that Enron’s real crime was not its financial chicanery but its abuse of California’s energy supply. The answer is simple: business is business, and we don’t interfere with the market.

We could apply that same logic to Mickey Kaus’s argument about the Cho video (this is a representative sample, he’s repeated this argument ad nauseam):

Why encourage other potential Cho’s [sic] to try for a similar publicity bonanza? This isn’t a Unabomber like case where publicizing a killer’s electronic media kit might help identify him. We already know who did it. … Ethics pontificators like Tom Rosenstiel seem to be lining up to praise how “sensitive” NBC was. Sensitive to the potential future murder victims. Sensitive to ratings. They struck a difficult balance! They walked a fine line! They split the difference. … NBC’s responsibility seems especially heavy since, as the sole recipient of Cho’s posthumous publicity kit, they had the power to keep it bottled up and deny him the reward he sought, no? [emphasis in original]

NBC News is in a particular business: reporting the news. There is no doubt that the final public statements of a killer are news. They provide a special sort of insight into an event that is historic and deeply troubling. Giving up an exclusive like this would mean giving up ratings which means giving up ad dollars which means hurting the shareholders and ? ultimately ? capitalism itself.

Now I don’t buy that. We can, do and should interfere with markets under a range of circumstances. We interfere with the free market in heroin because drugs are bad. Just because GM could get rich selling crack doesn’t mean we should let them. We interfere in the market for cigarettes in a different way, for a related reason. Cigarettes impose costs on society not incorporated into the cost of a producing a carton of smokes, so we impose taxes to make the price reflect the true cost. Taxes on pollution do the same thing ? internalize external costs.

The public airways are a limited resource owned by the people and licensed to a select group of media companies. It is fair to regulate them to ensure they operate in the public trust. One way they serve the public is through news and public affairs programming. Like many people, I am still trying to figure out what lessons, if any, can be drawn from that rampage. These videos help us all come to grips with the horrific events in the land of the Hokies. That is a public service.

Does that justify broadcasting Cho’s video and his plays? Is “deny[ing] him the reward he sought” a sound basis for refusing me information about a complex and confusing event? Should NBC be restricting public access to informative and important material out of concern for the possibility that some psychotic killer might be inspired to do the same thing in imitation of Cho?

This gets to the question of what the press is supposed to be. If the NBC News staff are supposed to be nannies, then yes, they ought to keep Cho’s video off the air and web. If the responsibility of a news organization is to report the news, then it would be deeply irresponsible to keep it off the air, to substitute one anchor’s account of the video (as Kaus suggests) for full public access to the material.

I should mention that I haven’t watched the video or NBC’s portrayal of it, but no one has cited anything in particular about it that shouldn’t be shown, except for a general distaste for it. Your personal distaste is a reason to change the channel and avoid NBC’s coverage of this event. If everyone does that, the market will sort it out.

NBC News is not responsible for everything anyone might think or do after watching a report. It’s one thing to negotiate with terrorists nor surrender to their demands. During a police investigation, the media ought to show some (not absolute) deference to the needs for secrecy in ongoing investigations, as they should respect the privacy of victims and alleged criminals. The results of behaving otherwise are predictable and the media bears responsibility for vigilantism that follows their coverage of, for instance, child predators.

If this were a debate about whether NBC should show more of the blood and guts from the frontlines of Iraq, I think we’d be closer to the line between “fit to print” and not. American media are skittish about showing dead or injured American soldiers in Iraq out of deference to Pentagon pressure and out of concern for families. On one hand, I appreciate their desire for decency and politeness, on the other hand, that gore is an important part of the story that we aren’t hearing, and the Pentagon’s interest in hiding that brutal reality is no reason for news organizations to sanitize events. The fact that Americans might think differently about the war after seeing the truth about events on the ground is not in and of itself a reason to air or not to air those images. Similarly, the fact that the unceasing violence in Iraq makes us look bad and contributes to declining support for the occupation is not, contrary to what many conservative commentators seem to think, an argument for ignoring those events and artificially inflate good news. A school getting painted in the US is not news, while blowing up trucks full of chlorine is. The same standard holds in Iraq, or at least it should.

Would showing bloodied American soldiers encourage insurgents? Probably not, since they’ve seen it anyway and the domestic audience in Iraq is more their target than American opinion.

Will showing Cho’s video encourage other insane killers to make videos while slaughtering dozens of innocents? Anyone who presumes to know what makes insane mass murderers do their insane mass murder should be a highly paid consultant for the FBI, not a hack blogger for Slate. Cho killed 33 people and wounded dozens more without any certainty that his video would be aired; it’s bizarre to assume that other killers would be more discerning.

Is showing Cho’s video journalistically justified? Yes. He is news, his actions are news, and his thoughts at the time of his actions are news.

Is it responsible journalism? Probably. There is a fine line here. I don’t think NBC is being sensationalistic about this (but as I say, I haven’t been watching their coverage), and their sensationalism would be a separate matter than the use of the videos per se.


  1. #1 sparc
    April 21, 2007

    When Michael Moore tried to ask Roger Moore

    Wasn’t that Roger Smith?

  2. #2 Matt Platte
    April 21, 2007

    We interfere with the free market in heroin because drugs are bad.

    Uh, well that’s one of the reasons, but hardly the most significant.

  3. #3 Brian
    April 21, 2007

    We interfere in the market for cigarettes in a different way, for a related reason. Cigarettes impose costs on society not incorporated into the cost of a producing a carton of smokes, so we impose taxes to make the price reflect the true cost.

    In the grand scheme of things, is this really all that significant a cost? Seems to me that end-of-life costs don’t vary all that much, and since smokers don’t live as long, there’s the bonus consideration that they aren’t as chronic a drain on the system.

    Could be I’m wrong. But it’s nevertheless a worthwhile question to ponder.

  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    April 22, 2007

    But then I can see no reason why you wouldn’t support the broadcasting of the beheading of Daniel Pearl …

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    April 22, 2007

    I don’t know what showing a beheading tells us beyond that someone’s head was cut off. Screaming, hooded men with swords, lots of blood, vomiting TV audiences and emotionally scarred children. Additional information gained, negligible, harm done, large.

    Whereas, all I know about Iraq is what I get from the media. It’s one thing to have a tallies of names in the paper or on TV, it’s another to see the conditions involved. There really is information that doesn’t get conveyed.

    If Cho’s video showed him killing or taunting victims, I’d support leaving that private, since it traumatizes without informing. My sense is that it is a rant about whatever craziness was going through his mind. The content and presentation of that does tell us something. For instance, it’s worth knowing that he was pretty obviously nuts, and not part of some sort of ideological group or committed terrorist.

  6. #6 Yakko
    April 22, 2007

    Many smokers don’t pass away in their sleep at home in bed. They die on oxygen machines and monitors in hospital beds. From personal observation (I can’t state it’s a fact without seeing more data) many smokers are in the lower economic classes, those most likely to not have insurance.

    Even those with insurance, the costs of paying for those with diseases is spread among all those insured by the company.

    So there is a public cost for smoker’s sicknesses.

  7. #7 Brian
    April 23, 2007

    Certainly valid, Yakko, but I would still be interested to see actual figures there (hard as they’d probably be to come by). All told, they collect less SS, their end-of-life care probably isn’t all that significantly costlier (after all, it is rare that aging isn’t accompanied by some sort of malady or other, natural or no).

    Plus, consider that in the lower socioeconomic classes, you also have abysmal patient compliance rates. Consider how much less time a patient will have in his/her lifetime to seek medical care, only to complicate things further and create further burden by failing to appropriately follow-up and/or comply with a treatment plan!

    As far as I can tell, smoking is a cost-saving plan if I ever saw one!

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