In a Tragedy, What's the Responsibility of Media?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
DANIEL SCHORR: It gets to be almost commonplace: After the tragedy comes the inquest into the role of the media.
HANSEN: NPR's senior news analyst, Daniel Schorr.
SCHORR: NBC News, for reasons unknown to NBC News, was the sole recipient of pictures, writings and videos sent by the killer at Virginia Tech between his shooting sprees. News president Steve Capus said that what to put on the air was a tough call. There were the feelings of families to be considered and maybe even the fear of a similarly driven copycat killer. All this weighed against the ill-defined right to know.
Similar problems have arisen before. I remember as long ago as 1976, when Croatian nationalists hijacked a Chicago-bound airliner, releasing its 92 passengers only in return for publication of their manifesto on the front pages of leading newspapers. A chagrinned Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, said: I'm not so sure we would accede to this demand in any form.
But in 1995, Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, who would kill three and wounded 28, presented the press with an exquisite problem: He would stop killing people with letter bombs only if a major newspaper published his long manifesto in full. At first, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger said: We can't be held hostage.
But finally, in an agony of decision-making, Sulzberger and the Washington Post's Mrs. Graham agreed to cosponsor the Unabomber's essay in the Times. Sulzberger said that this centers on the role of a newspaper as part of a community.
That statement should be remembered today. NBC's Capus was confronted, not with a blackmail threat - his killer was no longer in a position to threaten - but still, with having to determine, what should we show into a stricken community? Anchor Brian Williams said: So much of it is profane, downright gross and incomprehensible. We tried to edit carefully for broadcast, he said, not feeling quite elated with a scoop and the decision to share it with others.
With the media, the Virginia Tech experience was not a blackmail situation like the Unabomber, but it shares with others the agony of confronting issues of taste and media responsibility, what is owed to the public, and what should be shielded from the public.
In a few words - Sulzberger's words - NBC decided what it owed as members of a community. This is Daniel Schorr.
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