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Good Journalism turned bad

On the Oprah Winfrey Show today, the head of NBC News said the decision to broadcast video, images and parts of Seung-Hui Cho written manifesto was the decision of “good journalism.” He went on to support his decision saying that “sometimes good journalism is bad public relations,” and that “These are very difficult decisions.” An iconic Brian Williams backed up his statement, noting they only showed 2 minutes of the 25-minute video and seven of the 43 photographs.

Williams went on to reflect that the repeated images became too much for his family to watch, but the story was too important not to air. According to the pair, NBC received the package at 11am, but decided to hold off airing any of the material until 6:00 pm. They claim it was because they needed sufficient time to review the material and select which images to show.

But the reality, the cold hard truth, is that they didn’t want to waste the exclusive on MSNBC during the middle of the day. I can only imagine the conversation that ensued after the package was found.

Producer #1: “Holy SH*T is this real?”

Producer #2: “Yea I think so. This is some sick stuff. Did you watch video number 14 yet? He rants and raves about rich kids and half of his argument I can’t even make out.”

Producer #1: “Anything we can run with?”

Producer #2: “Tons, this kid was a genius. He gave us video, audio, pictures and an essay. We have enough here to have an exclusive for a week.”

Producer #1: “Well don’t waste it on daytime MSNBC. Let’s go get Brian and see how much of the 23 minutes we can use on this guy. “

Producer#2: “Sounds good to me. Holy cow check out this picture! He’s holding two guns in the air.”

Producer #1: “Money baby. This kid is money.”

Alright, I’m sure it wasn’t that cynical, but there is no doubt in my mind that the ratings war didn’t cross their minds. It’s been no secret that network news is slumping. Nightly news no longer reports on anything new, but rather just neatly packages the day’s headlines with a few catchy graphics, high quality video and feel-good stories. The fact that they were spoon-fed an exclusive built for the Internet and decided to hold onto it until the nightly newscast is almost too much to grapple with.

It’s not that they shouldn’t have shown the images, even though I believe it was a gross mistake to put them on the front page of every major newspaper and on the homepage of every major website, but rather that they did so in an era where information is shown, used, recycled, used again and finally reduced to Google archives. The videos may have been shown once on NBC, but they remain in the search engines for eternity. A simple Google image search for Seung-Hui Cho results in over 47,000 images. The most graphic images–those with him holding two guns in the air, holding a gun to his temple, and pointing a gun directly at the camera–are found on the first search page. Anyone in ten years with a computer who idolizes this guy will simply be able to create a small shrine of images with no effort at all.

If you take it to the next level a video search has over 1,900 results, and include segments of the killers video unreleased on TV. There is no escaping the damage already done.

Try this on for size. Someone has already linked the voice of Seung-Hui Cho to that of Napoleon Dynamite. The eleventh video in the search has an edited version of Napoleon Dynamite clips with that of Seung-Hui Cho. Is this the result of good journalism? Did NBC see this as the consequence of releasing the video?

Or how about the thirteen video, Seung-Hui Cho fan club. This is beyond sick. Beyond anything a human would think of doing.

How could anyone have predicted that a small media package, which probably took less than 10 hours to put together, would become one of the most popular targets of the web?

I ask Brian Williams and his boss how they prepare to deal with the aftermath in fifteen years when these videos show up in another mass murders package. It might be an edited clip comparing the two killers, or even copycat photos. At that point will it still be “good journalism?” Or just a media’s obsession with content and the philosophy that everything has to be shown, even if 32 families are reeling in horror, as their childs killer gets immortalized forever.

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