Shame on NBC

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the May, 2007 edition of The Valley Scene

A colleague at UW Oshkosh used to conduct an activity in one of her courses designed to demonstrate the unreliability of eyewitness recollections. She would recruit a student to enter her classroom unannounced and fire a loud toy cap gun into the air. After allowing everyone a split second glance at him, the “shooter” would flea. When the students’ shock subsided, they were asked to describe the shooter. Sure enough, in a classroom of 25 students there would be close to 25 different descriptions.

After Columbine my colleague ceased conducting the cap gun activity. The omnipresent threat of real violence takes the fun out of such exercises, and the learning outcomes produced pale in comparison to the high anxiety left behind.

After Virginia Tech school populations across the land might be that much more jittery, wondering whether to worry about the overly silent student in the back of the room, daydreaming while contemplating how to block a door or jump out of a classroom window when the shooting starts, and overreacting to any behavior or statement suggestive of a troubled individual in the midst. Were it not for the ease with which any individual in America can obtain a firearm, we might say that such post-traumatic stress disorder style reactions sound unreasonable. But since it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to adopt a puppy (the humane society usually consults character references before turning an animal over to just anyone), such reactions are reasonable indeed.

What’s not reasonable is the behavior of corporate media in response to such tragedies. Fiction writer Lionel Shriver, whose best selling We need to talk about Kevin deals with a high school assassin, in a Washington Post op-ed eloquently captured the problem with media “coverage” of school tragedies:

Even more than these gruesomely gratuitous incidents themselves, I have come to dread the campus shooting's ritual media aftermath -- a secondary wave of atrocity, all conducted under the guise of grief, soul-searching concern and an ostensible determination to ensure that no demented loner ever opens fire on his classmates again. Yet the bloated photographs on front pages, the repeating loops of interviews on cable news, the postings of warped creative writing assignments on the Web, and perhaps above all the airing of Cho's self-pitying, quasi-messianic video clips on every network all help ensure that similar incidents will indeed recur -- and soon.

Shriver’s “secondary wave of atrocity” covers all media outlets, but in the case of the Virginia Tech tragedy the behavior of NBC news was especially shameful. The news executives, who just a week previously in the wake of the Don Imus firing promised to be more thoughtful stewards of public discourse, displayed an amazing lack of judgment in the manner in which they released portions of a multimedia package sent to them by the Virginia Tech killer. The best statement I saw on this matter appeared on an Internet discussion list for Communication Studies professionals, and was written by University of Colorado emeritus professor John Bowers:

Let's discuss NBC News and its treatment of the multimedia package it received from the Virginia Tech killer.

Brian Williams introduced the material with a statement of NBC News' awareness that the messages were from a murderer. He went no further in analyzing the implications of NBC's coverage.

If I were planning an analogous massacre, these are some of the lessons I'd infer from tonight's NBC News broadcast:

(1) After I carry out the massacre and suicide, NBC News will broadcast pretty much anything I say, emphasizing pictorial material, if I give the package to them exclusively. (2) My story will lead that evening's coverage and will occupy at least half of a thirty-minute program even if other stories, including Iraq war stories, involve greater loss of human life. (3) NBC's coverage will include my own statements of ideology. (4) NBC's coverage will include my statements of solidarity with like-minded persons. (5) NBC's coverage will broadcast my message in multiple venues, including at least the Evening News and the Today Show. (6) NBC will extend the coverage of my message over multiple days.

Two other inferences that are slightly more subtle: (7) NBC's use of my material in general will reinforce my tacit view that a capitalistic media organization will broadcast almost anything if the material promises a substantial competitive advantage, even a temporary competitive advantage, over rivals. (8) Given the exploitative nature of the coverage, NBC News will try to dissociate itself from my views in order to conceal the exploitation, but NBC's empty disclaimers will ring falsely for many viewers.

Professor Bowers’ comments about the nature of a capitalistic media organization rings especially true when considering the strict rules NBC made competitors follow in order to broadcast the killer’s “manifesto” on their own networks. According to the New York Times, competitors were sent rules that said “No Internet use. No archival use. Do not resell,” and “Mandatory credit; NBC News.” We know that media corporations are bottom-line outfits of the worst kind, but it’s still shocking that even they could choose to exploit one of the worst tragedies in the history of the nation as a “media exclusive.”

Shame on NBC.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.