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Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten on NBC’s horrible decision to run the V-Tech killer’s video yesterday.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

HH: Joined now by Tim Rutten, media critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. If you listen to this program, you know Tim and I don’t agree on much. In fact, we do spell each other’s names the same way, but that’s about it. Tim Rutten, thanks for coming on. This is really serious stuff. And so let’s put aside politics for a moment.

TR: Sure.

HH: If you’d been at NBC yesterday, would you have counseled Steve Capus to run that video?

TR: No.

HH: Why not?

TR: Well, I think that there are two issues here, and I know that from what…I have not done any reporting on this. I’m going on just what I’ve read in the papers this morning, about NBC agonizing over this thing. And I’ve been in similar positions myself. I’ve been a participant in other discussions of this kind. I think they just came to the wrong conclusion, and I think that for two reasons. One is that I think that you have to be mindful of the impact of seeing this on the families of the victims of, the students and faculty members, who were killed by this horribly disturbed young man. And the other is I think going off the evidence of his own video, you have to be mindful of the fact that he was modeling himself after images and accounts of the Columbine killers, and what have you done here, except provide a blueprint for other disturbed people to follow, a model for them, as it were, and I just think you have to be terribly, terribly careful of those things. I respect the fact that NBC reached this decision in a conscientious way, but I think they reached the wrong one.

HH: They published a statement, which we’ll come to, but there’s an old rule in law firm compensation, which I think applies here. That which gets rewarded gets repeated.

TR: Right.

HH: And if you pay people to bill hours, they bill hours. If you pay them to go to meetings, they go to meetings. If you reward killers by instant glorification, Tim Rutten, I heard a psychiatrist argue, he’s going to be on Larry King tonight. He was on KNX yesterday, he will be on my show, hopefully tomorrow, that this is like setting the table for nuts to go…and right now, they’re hunting for…

TR: You know, that’s another important point. And I agree with you. This is, we’re having a discussion here that’s beyond politics, beyond any policy disagreements. And we’re really talking about the safety of our children, and of their teachers, and this is a deathly serious business. And like I say, I understand what NBC did. I understand that they felt they were illuminating the mind of this person. Frankly, though, I think that when it comes to television, and you’ve got a picture that moves, the temptation is so, so huge. And I think that perhaps unconsciously, they were swayed by that temptation. But I have to say, they weren’t the only ones. I mean, one of the very disturbing things to me about what happened yesterday is that other people, crediting NBC, and again, people across the spectrum, CNN and Fox and other people, they just aired this thing endlessly. And the most unfortunate thing of all, I mean, the mistake having been made, would be for this tape, which is now in the way things in cyberspace are now, immortal, he has achieved a kind of virtual immortality, this lunatic. And for it to now become the visual marker of his existence. In other words, every time anybody who does broadcast journalism refers to him, they will, they’ll show this clip.

HH: Yup. And that was foreseeable.

TR: And that’s a nightmare. That’s a nightmare.

HH: That was foreseeable, though, was it not?

TR: Yes, it was. Yes, it was foreseeable. I mean, one of the things that we’re seeing here is, aside from the way that the students there participated, you know, you’re a convinced and proselytizing new media guy. And you know this better than I do, which is that the students behaved, their response to this was all nuanced according to their participation and sophistication in new media. Well, so was this killer’s.

HH: Yeah.

TR: I mean, he foresaw, he understood what was going to happen with this…let’s call it for the sake of communication, let’s call this his testament.

HH: Yeah, and he knew what Steve Capus would do with it.

TR: He knew what was going to happen with it.

HH: Yeah.

TR: And we had an obligation to be his cut-off, to say no, no, no.

HH: I agree. And if, in fact, there was good to be gained, there were other ways of doing it. They could have done a password protected site that they would have admitted particular individuals to, and they could have sued for copyright if it spread.

TR: Well, that’s…yeah, that’s probably a little more elaborate than I would be. I just wouldn’t do it. I mean, I would not put the moving pictures on. I guess I’m okay with that single still image of him with the guns.

HH: I’m not.

TR: Though even that…I was about to say, even that mock heroic pose frankly makes me uneasy. I’d have been much more comfortable with a single cropped image of his face with that stupid reverse cap. I mean, where does that start? Is that so their brains can leak out?

HH: I’ll tell you, they could have done so many things. I want to ask you about their statement, though, Tim.

TR: Yeah.

HH: Because you’re hard on posers in new media.

TR: No, I’m hard on posers, period.

HH: Good, let’s get to this.

TR: Okay.

HH: They say in the statement, we did not rush the material onto air. Do you believe that?

TR: You know, I don’t have any reason not to believe it, so I’m going to assume that they’re honorable people and take them at their word.

HH: See, I see they had it for five…

TR: However long they talked…look, whether they talked…it’s immaterial to me whether they talked for five minutes or five hours. They reached the wrong conclusion.

HH: Agree with that, but if they had not rushed, they might have reached the right conclusion. By rushing…

TR: I don’t know.

HH: …they put it on their first network broadcast after they received it. They held it for ratings, in my opinion, and then they used it.

TR: Well, no, I’m not going to…look, Hugh, you’re comfortable speculating on their motives. I’m not going to do that to them.

HH: All right, let me ask you about this, then. In the same statement, they said we instead…we did not rush the material onto air, but instead consulted with local authorities, who have since publicly acknowledged our appropriate handling of the matter. Now Tim Rutten, that is a lie, because while they did in fact consult, they’re making it appear because of the first clause that they consulted about the release. They didn’t. They were complimented on turning the material over, and they’re attempting to confuse, at best confuse, and at worst, mislead. Do you agree with that?

TR: No, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing. I haven’t done the reporting, so I’m not going to call, not having done the reporting myself, I’m not going to call anybody a liar. But look, I also think that frankly, when the local…who do they mean by local authorities? They mean the campus police?

HH: No, nobody gave them, no one told them to do this.

TR: I mean, come on, a network, a broadcast network consulting with campus cops? I mean, that’s…the imbalance of power and influence there is so extreme, you can’t even get a valid…you know what? That sucks, but I don’t even have to be a lawyer, although I’m married to one. But that’s not a valid consent.

HH: No, it’s not, and it wasn’t even given. But I want to get down to…

TR: But I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You know what? It isn’t a decision for the local authorities.

HH: I agree.

TR: It’s a decision for NBC, and like I say, I’m going to grant the fact that they reached the decision they did in a conscientious way, but it’s a bad decision.

HH: But when you report on this, it is material that they are obscuring what they did. It is very…

TR: It is always material when people obscure.

HH: Yeah. Now they go on to say that the video that they aired, we believe it provides some answers to the critical question why did this man carry out these awful murders. It didn’t…

TR: Well, the only thing that it provides, that’s bull…that’s complete baloney, I’m sorry, I almost did something.

HH: And so, good, you almost got me FCC fined, yeah.

TR: I almost got you in trouble. Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

HH: It is complete bull.

TR: That statement is, yeah, that statement is bovine excrement. Look, the only thing this does is to demonstrate that he was insane. Well, none of us had any doubt about that.

HH: Exactly. Now lastly, lastly…

TR: None of us had any doubt.

HH: Lastly, they say they handled it with extreme sensitivity. Do you agree with that?

TR: No, I don’t. I don’t at all. I mean, it’s not…look, you know, sometimes you have to do things that are going to discomfort and even hurt people in journalism. It does happen. It’s happened to me, and I’ve agonized over this. I’ve agonized over these very decisions. As I said to your producer who first called me, I was once…one that stuck out in my mind was a question about whether or not we at the Los Angeles Times should show an extraordinarily traumatic and affecting photo of a highway patrolman grieving over one of his dead comrades, a highway patrolman who had been shot by one of these freeway shooters.

HH: Yup.

TR: And the photograph showed a weeping highway patrolman in front of the cruiser, and you saw the leg of his dead comrade.

HH: 30 seconds, what did you do?

TR: …poking out from under. We didn’t run it.

HH: Good for you. Good for…I mean, this is not rocket science. It’s basic human decency, and I think it is outrageous that NBC doesn’t have it. Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times, thanks for joining us on short notice on a serious subject.

End of interview.

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