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Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz on NBC’s handling of the Virginia Tech mass murderer’s manifesto.

Thursday, April 19, 2007
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HH: The news of the moment, I mean, breaking news, is that NBC received a package from the killer at Virginia Tech, sent between the time he murdered his first victims, and then went on the rampage at the Science and Engineering Building. And they’re not releasing it yet. Joining me to discuss this is Howard Kurtz, media columnist for the Washington Post, analyst for CNN, and all around good guy. Howard, how are you?

HK: I’m well.

HH: Should they let this stuff out? And if so, in what form?

HK: Well, at first, we did get the impression that they weren’t going to put this out at all, that they’re turning it over to the authorities, and I didn’t understand that at all. But at the moment, Hugh, I’m looking at MSNBC, and there is a still photograph of this crazed, sick killer, posing with two guns and some sort of vest on, and ammunition bulging out of his pockets, and NBC now saying that just about 20 minutes from now, they will broadcast some of the video, and I guess some of the scrawlings of this killer on NBC Nightly News. So they are planning to release some of it. Whether they’re going to release all of it, when they should release all of it is an interesting question.

HH: Howard Kurtz, do you think they’ve been holding it to pump up their ratings tonight?

HK: I think it’s certainly possible they’ve been holding it for the last couple of hours, because they want to do a big number on the NBC Nightly News, but they only just got it today, so I don’t think we can accuse NBC of a grand conspiracy. They immediately turned this over to authorities. And look, I mean, I suppose if the Washington Post had gotten this, or CNN, I don’t think you should hold it for very long, and it doesn’t look like they’re holding it for very long. I think they’re crashing the piece right now. But you know, it is a scoop, even though it’s not a scoop that they went out and dug up. It just dropped in their laps, literally, in the mail room, and they have a responsibility to share with the rest of the world at least some of this material.

HH: You know, Howard, I’m really troubled by this. I’m glad they turned it over to the [police]. But I wish they would simply…my thinking about for the last hour since I heard the press conference, is they ought to redact the documents, put the documents out there, never show the pictures. I don’t want this kid to get any attention, because it encourages copycats. But I do want to see what was going on in his fevered mind, and I think that could have been out in a matter of minutes. But they’re working this for ratings. They’re working a national tragedy for ratings. Hasn’t that come up in…

HK: Well, I’m not going to jump to that conclusion, Hugh, only because I haven’t had a chance to talk to NBC. I have tried. It may well be that they didn’t want to do anything until they got a green light from authorities. You know, you might be right, but I don’t see that big a timeline between when they were available to put this out or not. And I share…I know I’m going to be very, very angry when I see these pictures, if they play any of this video, because in effect, it’s granting Cho’s final death wish.

HH: Yes.

HK: I don’t want to see him getting attention, either. At the same time, it’s this huge national tragedy, huge national story, and we do want to get some insight into what motivated this sick, twisted individual.

HH: That’s where the written product comes out. That’s where, if he’s got a Unibomber manifesto, we should read that. I’ll be interested to see if it mentions what this Ismail’s Ax that he wrote on his arm, and what that’s all about. So there’s lots of good questions here. But that’s something that NBC is now sitting on that lots and lots of experts, and I’m thinking lots and lots of family members, victims, want to know. And I just for the life of me cannot understand how the coincidence arrives that they managed to get it out just in time for the start of the Evening News. Howard…

HK: Well, they didn’t even break it on MSNBC until 5:15 Eastern, 2:15 your time in California. And there’s only an hour and fifteen minutes between that announcement and putting it on Nightly News. So again, I’m not going to accuse them of a ratings ploy here. I do feel like they shouldn’t play, if they play more than a snippet of this video, it will probably make a lot of people angry, including me. This is the same question that comes up with Osama bin Laden puts out a video or one of his murderous deputies in al Qaeda. The struggle, really, between whatever the newsworthy value may be, and not wanting to play into the hands of, in that case, a terrorist, in this case, a mass murderer.

HH: Oh, we agree about that, and I hope they don’t do anything…I’m not even sure I’d want to see a still photo of the kid with guns. It might be very traumatic for the families.

HK: Well, unfortunately, I bet you’re going to see it on the front page of every newspaper tomorrow as well.

HH: Probably. The kid’s going to get everything he wants, he’s going to be immortalized. It’s the wrong decision, but it’s one, they’ve got a First Amendment right to make it. But if they’re going to be a news organization, and they’re sitting on news, I know you don’t want to judge them, but you know how easy it is to put the stuff in a .pdf and throw it on the web. It takes literally five minutes. They’ve given it to the authorities. They’ve had to have had it at least for five hours, right?

HK: I think several hours is probably fair. They say they got it this morning. I mean, it could have been discovered, you know, literally three or four hours ago by some clerk in a mailroom.

HH: And Capus has got to be…I was on a panel with Steve Capus in Las Vegas on Monday, so he might still be in Vegas at the NAB. But that doesn’t…I’m very uneasy with this, Howard. Don’t we have a right to know in a national story everything that a news organization knows, that’s going to…I mean, it’s going to be made public eventually.

HK: Sure. But you know, I can’t quarrel with the first thing that NBC News did, and that is contact the authorities, and turn the material over.

HH: Agreed.

HK: And I don’t know how long that process took, so I don’t know when they felt now we can turn to the journalistic mission of putting this out, and deciding when we put it out. Now when we get more details about this, maybe you’ll be proven right, and you know, even for a few hours, they figure hey, great scoop, let’s put it on NBC Nightly News. But until I talk to somebody at the network, I’m going to reserve judgment on that point.

HH: If in fact they did that, they held it for ratings, contemptible behavior?

HK: I’m going to wait and see before I start throwing adjectives around.

HH: All right. Further, how do you judge the conduct of the media thus far in covering this story on the campus?

HK: By and large, and you know, I usually have no shortage of criticism of the media, by and large, I think because this is such a big and important and chilling and horrible story, the media have done a fairly good job. There’s been a little bit too much of let’s find someone to blame, that maybe the cops should have done this, and the school authorities should have done that, at least in the questions at press conferences, and there’s been, you know, the knee jerk reaction of let’s book somebody who’s for gun control and against gun control, and put that debate on. But by and large, it seems to me that the interviews have been handled with some sensitivity, that there’s been some restraint, and not a lot of rumors or speculation have gotten on the air, certainly compared to the usual garbage that we see when there’s, you know, Laci Peterson, or Natalee Holloway type story, or Anna Nicole, where somebody has to pump it up for ratings. And so, I would say not a bad job.

HH: And relative to the discussion of the victims versus the discussion of the killer, is there an appropriate balance there being struck?

HK: I think, you know, the major part of the spotlight, as it should be, has been on those who lost their lives. Remember, we didn’t even know all the names until the last 24 hours, interviewing family members, teachers, colleagues, you know, that’s the story, not this sick, twisted guy who we don’t want to glorify him in any way. But you’ve got 32 people dead on a college campus, a place, a kind of place that we used to think of as a sanctuary for young people. And so I think appropriately, that’s where the spotlight has been, and I think there’ll be more of that in the coming days now that we have the names, as the shock begins to wear off. We can do more interviews. I hope that’s where the spotlight remains.

HH: And if Leonard Downie calls you up this evening, and says Howard, I’ve got these pictures that NBC released, what do you think I should do with them, what would your advice be to him?

HK: Well, I think I’d have a hard time arguing against the using of at least a single still photo, because basically, Hugh, it’s already on TV, and it’s going to be in every newspaper in America. It’s hard to sort of unilaterally decide on that point. I wouldn’t run, like, a full page spread of the pictures of the video, and necessarily put the video on Washingtonpost.com. I’m sort of with you in that. Why give this killer what he wants?

HH: It’s also, it seems to me that if people want to see them, and you posted them on the web, they can go there, but that you’re going to dramatically increase the reach of these pictures to people who don’t want to see them. I also want to…

HK: That is true. It’s like these beheading tapes.

HH: Yup.

HK: You know, if somebody wants to affirmatively click on it, then I suppose it should be made available. But do we want to thrust this in the faces of people at newsstands, people who are just channel surfing? It’s a very serious concern.

HH: I’m quoting now from the MSNBC site, in an interview with MSNBC.com, Steve Capus, who’s not returning your phone calls. That’s the other thing I don’t like about this, Howard.

HK: Well actually, I didn’t call him. I called somebody in the public relations office.

HH: Okay, they’re giving interviews to each other, and so I don’t like when news organizations interview themselves, because that’s not news. He said that Cho talks to the camera in the videos, and in one instance, he makes a vague reference to the massacre. Capus said, “This didn’t have to happen. The statement is hard to follow, kind of rambling. He speaks about hatred.” Capus added that is was disturbing, very angry, profanity-laced. You know, I’m going to go back one more time. By the end of the night, should we be able to read this statement, Howard Kurtz?

HK: The written statement, I certainly think we should be able to read, and even, you know, obviously, if it’s profanity-laced, you’re not going to read it on the air, but you know, put it on MSNBC.com, and let people who are interested see what this bizarre murderer has to say, and what was going through his mind. Sounds like it’s not very coherent, which is not surprising. But on the other stuff, I would counsel restraint.

HH: I agree with that. Howard Kurtz, thanks for making time, a big, huge media story today. I appreciate it, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. You can go read Media Notes at the Washingtonpost.com.

End of interview.

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