Friday, April 20, 2007
The Tapes of Wrath
"The only difference between suicide and martyrdom is press coverage."
-- Chuck Palahniuk
I want my soul back.
Over the years, the television news business has made me feel many ways -- exhilarated, proud, honored, embarrassed, enlightened, trivial, angry, frustrated, even ashamed on more than one occasion. It has never, however, made me feel dirty -- until now.
This overwhelming need that I have at the moment to crawl into a shower and desperately attempt to rinse the corruption and sickness off of my skin stems from one simple fact: the images that are currently plastered all over every television network and newspaper in America -- the photos and homemade video of Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui -- should never have seen the light of day. Neither you, nor I, nor the families of the victims, nor anyone aside from FBI investigators should have ever laid eyes on any of it.
I'm well aware that there are some who would consider this a dereliction of duty on my part -- an abandonment of my unspoken vow to dispassionately satisfy the public's insatiable right to know, no matter the cost or consequence.
You know something? I couldn't fucking care less.
On Wednesday afternoon, NBC News made a decision that, if there's any justice in the universe whatsoever, will be remembered as the singular event that obliterated its once-hallowed reputation, got its smug, hypocritical prick of a president Steve Capus deported to a deserted island and brought 30 Rock crashing to the ground.
Through a thought process that I can't even begin to comprehend, nor would I even wish to be able to, NBC chose to give a final posthumous forum to the psychotic, self-obsessed and thoroughly delusional kid who took thirty-two innocent lives out of some ridiculously inflated sense of aggrievement for a supposed lifetime of persecution. The network's news executives put prurience ahead of prudence and in doing so rubbed the faces of the victims' families into the very dirt used to bury their loved ones -- they did it by seeing to it that everywhere those families turned, they would stare into the same cold eyes that their terrified sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, husbands and wives saw the instant before they died.
Understand, as a veteran of this business I've always been of the opinion that news must be taken at face value -- that the potential fallout, positive or negative, from running a legitimate story should rarely, if ever, be taken into account when deciding whether or not to go to air with that story. I've sat in meeting after meeting in which the news value of an item was weighed against its potential impact. I've listened to executive after executive rationalize the choice to run a questionable news item in the hope of hiding from others and possibly even themselves the tawdriness of their true motives. I've done it myself on more than one occasion.
I can tell you, without fear of contradiction, that this is exactly what Capus and company did on Wednesday when presented with a story, the spectacular sensationalism of which was matched only by its complete lack of any real value to the public. NBC's news department heads received a gift from the gods, via the mail, and they'd be damned if they weren't going to run with it -- no matter what kind of moral somersaults they might have to perform to justify the decision.
So run with it they did -- splashing Cho Seung-Hui's contorted face and idiotic ramblings across the airwaves with all the subtlety of gang-bang porn.
As if on cue from the network's PR department, Steve Capus himself took to NBC's airwaves soon after to assure America that he had personally wrestled long and hard with the leviathan ethical dilemma presented by such a story before valiantly pinning his conscience to the mat and forcing it to tap out. The hysterical irony was that it marked Capus's second such appearance on one of his own networks' news programs in two weeks: the last time was when he bombastically asserted the moral authority of himself and his network by dropping Don Imus, who had merely insulted, rather than gunned down a group of college students.
Let me repeat that in simpler terms: make a cruel comment about a bunch of kids and you're not worthy to have a forum on NBC; stalk through the halls shooting kids in cold blood and NBC will give you all the time you'd like to speak your mind.
No matter the bullshit ethical loopholes Capus continues to try to squeeze through, one need only look at the video itself for NBC's true motivation to become crystal clear. There, burned into the top left-hand corner of every frame of tape and every still image of Cho posing with his weapons of choice is the NBC News logo -- complete with peacock. It's been put there as an almost juvenile (given the subject matter) assertion of ownership -- a figurative tongue protruding in the direction of every news organization that NBC knew would fair-use the material.
It's the best and easiest form of promotion imaginable -- promotion the network hopes will turn into ratings which will turn into dollars for NBC/Universal shareholders and a big bonus for Capus.
And lest there be any lingering doubt that the network knew from the beginning that it was stepping over the line, Brian Williams basically admitted as much during a conversation with imbecilic talking-head Chris Matthews on MSNBC Wednesday night -- saying that he was well aware that by airing even a portion of Cho's manifesto, NBC was bestowing upon the killer the martyrdom he had hoped to achieve. The reason he had killed -- the reason he had mailed the tape to a television network to begin with -- was because he wanted to be heard loud and clear, and NBC was more than happy to oblige him that opportunity.
Satisfying the motives of a murderer should've been reason enough for NBC to refuse to air such an obscenely stupid diatribe. The only argument that can ever be made -- the one mitigating factor -- in favor of giving a killer what he wants is the threat of further violence, and Cho wasn't the Zodiac; he had already seen to it that he would never kill again.
The morning after the network made its contemptibly immoral decision -- one which opened the floodgates for every other news organization in the world to follow suit, as the genie was out of the bottle by that point -- the families of two of the shooting victims canceled their scheduled appearances on the Today Show, citing a very understandable level of bitter outrage. Whether that was enough to hammer home the culpability of the network in the continued emotional torture of these poor people, who knows; it would be nice to believe though that behind the walls of 30 Rock and its bastard stepchild MSNBC -- the nicest warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey -- someone somewhere was considering the throwing of himself upon a sword for the unforgivable crime of dishonoring what's always been a strictly above-the-board news operation.
I knew none of the victims personally, and yet I grieve for them. As someone who's always allowed myself the comfort of detached analysis, and an occasional moral relativism which is the natural by-product of it, I don't often see subjects in terms of absolutes. Things are rarely black or white, right or wrong, good or evil; there's typically an abundance of gray area in between which demands to be taken into account.
Not this time.
I feel for the families of the victims. I feel for the victims themselves -- all of whom were guilty of nothing more than waking up and going to class on an otherwise typical Monday morning. I imagine their terror when confronted with their cold and methodical executioner. I place the life of Max Turner against the life of Cho Seung-Hui -- what he chose to become -- and it's not even worthy of comparison; it's innocence versus guilt -- life versus death. Not one of those thirty-two people deserved to die, certainly not at the whim of a craven fucking coward who needed to lock them all in and mercilessly gun them down to achieve whatever narcissistic sense of authority he felt life was denying him. Anyone who demands respect from behind a gun is spineless to begin with; a person who demands it from an unarmed kid who's cowering on the floor in front of him, begging for his or her life -- just before shooting that terrified kid three times -- is a worthless piece of shit.
Make no mistake: I would wink at the devil and gladly accept a lifetime in hell just for the sheer, unadulterated joy of having been able to take Cho Seung-Hui's skull and smash it against the concrete floor until there was nothing left of it.
Someone should've put a fucking bullet in that kid before he ever had the chance to destroy so many innocent lives.
I don't care what his twisted reasoning was or who had beat him up back in high school, there's simply no excuse for what he did.
Just like there's no excuse for complicity in the elevation of his act to the martrydom he had hoped it would be seen as by the next sociopathic kid with a gun and a grudge.
Believe me, that kid's already out there somewhere -- and he's thinking that he can kill thirty-three.