NBC Cites an Obligation to Air Cho Materials NBC has been criticized for releasing videos and writings sent to the network by the Virginia Tech gunman Seung-hui Cho. But NBC anchor Brian Williams tells NPR that the network had an obligation to share what it had learned with the public, and to balance its news instincts with the obligation not to interfere with investigations and not to needlessly hurt the relatives of those killed.
NPR logo

NBC Cites an Obligation to Air Cho Materials

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/9692304/9692305" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
NBC Cites an Obligation to Air Cho Materials

NBC Cites an Obligation to Air Cho Materials

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/9692304/9692305" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, NBC had an obligation to share with the public what it had learned.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: NBC knew pretty much immediately that it had a hot potato on its hands. Here's NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams in the opening moments of his newscast last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBC NIGHTLY NEWS)

BRIAN WILLIAMS: When the package arrived on the desk of our news division president today, the first thing we did was call federal authorities.

FOLKENFLIK: And Williams acknowledged the network's qualms.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBC NIGHTLY NEWS)

WILLIAMS: We are sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected and we know we are in effect airing the words of a murderer here tonight.

FOLKENFLIK: The fallout was swift.

(SOUNDBITE OF "TODAY SHOW")

MEREDITH VIEIRA: In fact, I will tell you that we had planned to speak to some family members of victims this morning, but they canceled their appearances because they were very upset with NBC for airing the images.

FOLKENFLIK: That was NBC's Meredith Vieira this morning on the "Today Show." 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. And just a few hours ago, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine criticized NBC.

TIM KAINE: 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, but as a parent I believe that some of it has been overdone in ways that I don't think serve any valuable purpose.

FOLKENFLIK: But some people with law enforcement ties welcome the coverage. Former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Philip 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.

PHILIP HEYMANN: I don't want to sound too much like a reporter, but the public does have a right to know. It is important that the country talk it out. And it's important to know what was going on in the perpetrator's mind.

FOLKENFLIK: Only a small portion of the Cho material was aired. In an interview, NBC's Brian Williams tells NPR the discussion was intense on what to do with the unexpected scoop.

WILLIAMS: It was not fun yesterday. There was no joy in this process. A mass murderer delivered to our doorstep what we termed this multimedia manifesto.

FOLKENFLIK: After consulting government officials, Williams says there was consensus inside NBC that some of it had to be aired.

WILLIAMS: I think there was an obligation to impart at least the spirit and the feeling of this communication and what it reflected about this gunman responsible for the worst incident of gun violence in American history.

FOLKENFLIK: Newspapers faced their own challenges. In Albany, New York, the Times Union stripped a headline about Cho across the front page, though two other stories got even more play. The story on the manifesto included a photo of Cho wielding two guns. Rex Smith is the Albany daily's editor-in-chief.

REX SMITH: We thought that the image was an iconic representation of what he was saying, that it would be widely disseminated anyway and that it would be a piece of visual journalism that our readers needed to see.

FOLKENFLIK: But Smith's paper kept the photo to a smaller size than many other newspapers did.

SMITH: There was a point of view most prominently advocated by our design director, and that is, we shouldn't be giving this guy what he wants, which is the level of prominence.

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.