NEW YORK — To Catholic father and media lawyer Josh Harden, it seemed as though Satan himself had gained access to his living room when NBC aired the manifesto of the Virginia Tech mass murderer.
“This was incredibly irresponsible on the part of NBC, and it added nothing toward gaining insightful knowledge into this tragedy, said Harden from his home in Jefferson City, Mo. He called the images “pornographic” in their own way.
Harden isn’t alone in his outrage. Within hours of the first airing two days after the massacre, thousands protested NBC’s judgment with blogs, letters to newspapers, calls to radio talk shows, and official complaints to NBC executives. Portions of the killer’s video aired on most major networks, with NBC brass insisting that it be used only with the network’s logo prominently displayed.
The killer, a deranged Virginia Tech student, mailed the video after shooting two students in a dormitory. He sent it to NBC in New York before continuing his murder spree so that NBC would broadcast it. NBC played the part the killer assigned them.
“We understand, we appreciate and we respect their concerns,” NBC News President Steve Capus stated publicly in response to the complaints. “I’m steadfast in my belief that we did the right thing and we handled it appropriately.”
Capus said the network turned the video over to police before airing it, in order to be sure it wouldn’t interfere with the investigation.
Tim Graham, director of analysis for the Media Research Center near Washington, D.C., said NBC can take credit for several copycat massacres he fears will be inspired by the soliloquy of a sociopath.
“Had NBC decided not to air this, it could have been kept off the air entirely because nobody else received a copy,” said Graham, a Catholic who believes NBC chose to serve as a publicist for evil. “By airing it, they gave everyone else the go-ahead. How can a mass murderer be even more repulsive than to kill 32 people? By getting the major networks to air his message from the grave.”
Capus said the experience from Columbine High School — in which two suicidal maniacs killed 13 Colorado students and a teacher before killing themselves in 1999 — tells him that more massacres are likely.
“We had copycats in the wake of Columbine, and we’ll have them in the wake of Virginia Tech,” Graham said. “It was only when the media got bored with the Columbine story that the copycat incidents seemed to drop off. NBC should be very concerned that it chose to serve as the messenger for this mass murderer, giving him an opportunity to say exactly what he wanted to say to the entire world. It may create an almost irresistible temptation for other angry, suicidal sociopaths who want to go out in a blaze of glory.”
Harden agreed, fearing the worst.
“There are millions of disgruntled, disturbed teens who write morbid poetry, and all this potentially does is encourage some of them to go out and kill 32 or more people in order to get their little-known expressions, which nobody cares about otherwise, in front of the entire world,” Harden said. “Do network executives feel they have no responsibility for the welfare of society?”
Graham says executives at NBC commonly pretend to care, as shown in two decisions not to air the potentially objectionable words of celebrities.
“This is the same network that couldn’t give Don Imus another 15 seconds of airtime after he told an off-color joke, but they decided to distribute this murderer’s venom to the world audience, over and over again,” Graham said. “This is sickness.”
Before NBC officials protected audiences from Imus — who degraded the Rutgers women’s basketball team — it chose in 2005 to edit out the words of rap star Kanye West when he departed from a prepared script during a hurricane relief concert. West’s comments criticized the way mainstream media portrayed black people in the hurricane zone as “looters,” while white people were portrayed as victims innocently searching for food. He also said President Bush didn’t “care about black people.”
An official NBC statement explained that the West comments were edited out because “it would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated and the millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person’s personal opinion.”
“NBC has a history of grandstanding, saying it’s editing to protect us from messages we shouldn’t hear,” Harden said. “But if a hate-filled sociopath sends them a video that’s a surefire ratings hit, they run with it.”
Ray Pritchard, president of the evangelical Keep Believing Ministries in Chicago, said the video may damage society.
“We have now looked evil straight in the face,” Pritchard said. “It’s truly frightening to see what one human can do to another, and in this case what he’s doing from the grave. No wonder people are scared. When people get scared they get angry, and when they’re angry they treat each other with extreme disrespect. We will see a more angry, more disrespectful country.”
Not everyone, however, agreed that airing the video was a bad decision. Morality in Media President Robert Peters said he’s glad NBC showed it.
“That imagery was so evil, so awful that part of me wishes the nation had not been exposed to it,” Peters, a media lawyer, said.
However, Peters said, the video may serve as a wakeup call that’s needed if the culture is to pull out of a nosedive into constant violence and incivility.
“If this won’t evoke important discussions about what our pop culture is doing to people then I don’t know what will,” Peters said. “This killer was so obviously influenced by the pop culture that nobody can dispute the role our entertainment media play in generating extreme violence.”
Peters said his wife has a different view of NBC’s decision, believing the video will only lead to more violence.
“There’s probably some truth to that,” Peters said. “But take a look at The New York Times and count the number of ads for major films where someone is carrying a gun, shooting, and pointing a weapon at your face, just as was seen in this video. People are seeing images like this all the time — obviously this killer was — regardless of whether NBC aired the video. Now people might connect the dots.”
Peters said he developed a deep understanding of the power popular media can have on troubled youth, because he was a disturbed college senior filled with anger and rage in the 1970s. During his senior year at Dartmouth College, he suffered the rejection of a woman and began a bout with deep depression, heavy drinking, self-pity and self-destruction.
He said he was from a working class family, and attended the school on a scholarship. He said he begrudged the Ivy League school’s plethora of students who had graduated from prep schools and exuded wealth.
“After suffering rejection, I would sit and listen to these love ballads that were popular back then, and they had this incredibly profound effect on my behavior,” Peters said. “I felt and acted as those songs told me to, so I drank and self-destructed in a number of ways. Today, someone in that situation is likely to be listening to rap artists, some of them violent convicted criminals, telling them to strike out in violence and kill. I believe entertainment media absolutely drives the behavior of a certain type of troubled person. Today’s music would have me not drowning in self-pity, but seeking revenge.”
Melissa Caldwell, senior director of programs for the Parents Television Council, said she can’t second-guess NBC’s decision to air the killer’s video. However, she doubts it will result in anything good.
“This raises big questions about media responsibility,” Caldwell said. “I hope most parents have had enough good sense not to let their kids see it. It would make them very fearful of the world they’re living in.”
Wayne Laugesen is based in