NBC News is drawing sharp criticism for broadcasting video footage, still photographs and text from a multimedia package that Seung-hui Cho sent to the network during a pause in his deadly rampage Monday at Virginia Tech.
Pictures showed an angry Cho pointing guns at the camera. Video captured his rambling anger. If the Virginia Tech killer wanted to orchestrate national media coverage, he sure found a way to do so.
NBC says it had an obligation to share with the public what it had learned about Cho. But network executives knew immediately that they had a hot potato on their hands Wednesday. In the opening moments of the NBC Nightly News Wednesday night, anchor Brian Williams said that NBC News' president called federal authorities as soon as he received the package. Williams also disclosed to viewers the network's qualms about airing the footage.
"We are sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected," Williams said. "We know we are, in effect, airing the words of a murderer here tonight."
The fallout was swift. On the Today Show this morning, co-host Meredith Vieira told viewers that family members of some of the victims who had planned to appear on the program had cancelled their appearance "because they were very upset with NBC for airing the images."
The chief of the Virginia State Police said he was disappointed by NBC's editorial decisions and that it shed no light on the killings. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine also criticized NBC at a press conference Thursday.
"I don't own a TV network and I don't own a newspaper, so you know, I don't spend too much time worrying about things I can't control," Kaine said. "But as a parent, I believe that some of it has been overdone in ways that I don't think serve any valuable purpose."
But some people with law enforcement ties welcomed the coverage. Former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Phillip Heymann notes that Seung-hui Cho is dead, and that he effectively confessed in the package he sent to NBC. So Heymann says there's no investigation to taint, and no jury to influence.
"I don't want to sound too much like a reporter, but the public does have a right to know," Heymann says. "It is important that the country talk it out, and it's important to know what was going on in the perpetrator's mind."
Only a small portion of the Cho material was aired. In an interview, NBC's Brian Williams tells NPR that the discussion was intense on what to do with its unexpected scoop.
"It was not fun yesterday," Williams says. "There was no joy in this process. A mass murderer delivered to our doorstep what we termed this 'multimedia manifesto'."
After consulting government officials, Williams says, there was consensus inside NBC that some of it had to be aired.
"I think there was an obligation to impart at least the spirit and the feeling of this communication – and what it reflected about the gunman, responsible for the worst incident of gun violence in American history," Williams says.
The NBC broadcast stirred debate in other newsrooms, as well. Rival networks quickly jumped on the NBC material for their own shows.
On Thursday, ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schnieder said the initial excerpts broadcast on his network were newsworthy but that to dwell on the images would be "pornographic." Twenty-four-hour cable news channels devoted more time to the footage.
Newspapers faced their own challenges. In Albany, N.Y., the Times Union stripped a headline about Cho across their front page — though two other stories got even more play. The story on the manifesto included a photo of Cho wielding two guns.
"We though that the image was an iconic representation of what he was saying," says Rex Smith, the Times Union's editor in chief. "It would be widely disseminated anyway, and that it would be a piece of visual journalism that our readers needed to see."
But Smith's paper kept the photo to a smaller size than many other newspapers did.
"There's a point of view most prominently advocated by our design director, and that is, we shouldn't be giving him what he wants – which is the level of prominence," Smith says.
Several students from Virginia Tech made that same case in interviews with NPR. They said they wished NBC had not aired the footage at all.
NBC appears to be sensitive to that criticism.
It issued a statement saying that no more than 10 percent of any further news program on NBC or MSNBC would be devoted to the Cho videos. People who now visit the network's Web site, MSNBC.com, are warned each time they click on each new Web page about Cho that the material they are about to see could be disturbing. And anchor Brian Williams says that he'll broadcast more material only if it sheds more light on the killings.