NBC News’ Brian Williams breathlessly resurrected a killer before our eyes last night in the visceral perversion of airing the pornographic rantings of a madman — under the guise of news and beneath the veil of human contempt — thus guaranteeing a shooter’s immortality while completely burying the names and the accomplishments of the real and undeserved dead. 

I have purposely avoided using the Virginia Tech shooter’s name on this blog because I don’t want to give him any sort of new life in his deathly deeds, but NBC’s broadcast of a killer’s rantings is sickening and the fact that NBC plastered their logo all over his images for publication forges a disgusting connection — “He’s all ours!” — between a killer and media news whores who obviously adore him with 24/7 television and internet coverage.

In the image below, the NBC News logo has been positioned — just so — in order to semiotically suggest the killer is bowing down and hailing praise on the NBC News logo.

I think there is something wrong in the veneration of a killer. Do we, as a society, have a need to viscerally view 45 images, read 23 pages of rantings and witness 25 minutes of hate video from a mass murderer?

If so, for what purpose? Are we trying to understand the killer?

Or are we cruelly seeking entertainment in the murders of 32 students? How can the propagation of Hate Speech be considered news? Should there be a limit on what is considered news-for-profit and materials that should only belong to the eyes of the FBI and police investigators?

Why do we make stars out of murderers? Only the most effective murderers get this kind of coverage: Manson, Bundy, Gein, Berkowitz and the rest of murderer’s row are all unwillingly ingrained into our American consciousness.

In order to separate NBC news from any taint from a murderer’s hand — I’ve never understood the psychic appeal of Brian Williams as a news anchor; I’ve never seen a more repressive and haughty presentation and I now understand why the avuncular and touching Charles Gibson at ABC News is gaining quick ground on Williams in the ratings for the evening news — NBC News president Steve Capus just said on MSNBC the reason NBC News is salaciously publishing the rantings of a dead tormentor was to “take us inside the mind of a killer.”

Why NBC News feels that is an important path for us to take is one that damns them into the same grave as the shooter — but, then again — NBC news has become “The Pedophile Network” where they provide us ongoing and neverending coverage of pedophiles trying to hook up with 13-year olds.

Even MSNBC news commentator Clint Van Zandt said on air yesterday that, as a former FBI hostage negotiator, he was sickened that NBC was giving lift to the killer with their extended coverage.

Then, turning on a dime and losing his soul and his moral authority in the change, Van Zandt confessed that, as a guy hired by the network to comment on the Virginia Tech story, he understood why NBC wanted to air the new material. Van Zandt sussed it out for us: NBC is all about the money and not about the suffering of the dead and the survivors.

The most interesting aspect for me in this NBC News gewgaw fawning over a killer is how they have come to believe they have the the right to publish the killer’s work and slap their logo on the material. Does NBC have the legal right to do as they wish with the material without clearing the rights for the material from the shooter’s family? Just because the shooter sent the material to NBC, that act alone does not give them license to publish at will without written consent from the author, right? Can a mentally ill murderer even provide legal consent for the user of material?

Can NBC invoke “The Doctrine of Fair Use” in publishing all of the killer’s manifesto and supporting material? As I understand Copyright law — I think NBC did not have the right to publish the killer’s work. Will the shooter’s family step forward at some point to seek legal action against NBC for the illegal publication of their son’s work without their permission? Will NBC have to pay the family of the killer for Copyright infringement?

When do we, as the public, have the right NOT TO KNOW the unnecessary and despicable details of gory killings glorified on national television where the intent in sharing is to only earn ratings and provoke advertising?

42 Comments

  1. You have posed a lot of important questions here that deserve consideration, but I am going to ignore them in order to advance my own agenda for a moment.
    While all this is going on the news, while NBC is trying to “take us inside the mind of a killer” and Facebook groups are encouraging everyone to wear orange and maroon on Friday and every station is trying get another inside story from the bereaved, the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on abortion yesterday.
    I wouldn’t even have known if it weren’t for the blogosphere.
    The sensationalized TV coverage of the VT tragedy is doubly wrong for crowding out news reportage. I grieve for the senseless murders of those students, but I also need to know that the government is trying to turn my body into a metaphor and a political lever.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tanglethis. I thought about writing about the Supreme Court ruling yesterday — and I agree it is bad news when a fetus trumps the body of a mother even under the umbrella of a partial-birth abortion — but the more of-the-moment meaning for me today was to directly confront the NBC news situation because of its pernicious effect on our American psyche.
    The abortion rights battle is lost. 30 years of protection will soon be gone. That’s what you get with unchallenged Republican rule that wins power in the private courts and not in the arena of public votes.
    We can still save our airwaves from disingenuous news coverage that creates a crassness and a distancing of moral intent that creates a jaded and abandoned voter base that leads us as a nation to the ruling rendered yesterday.
    The Virgina Tech police just had a press conference concerning the material NBC released yesterday and they basically said NBC aired nothing they didn’t already know have have and they suggested NBC’s motives were salacious and unnecessary and unhelpful.

  3. Hi Nicola!
    It is a tremendously gross prospect to provide “divination via the mass media” to a mass murderer! People say “turn it off” — but that becomes an impossible task when every newspaper, web page, television broadcast and radio program are all talking about and demonstrating the vices of a killer! We have truly gone insane as a culture!
    NBC should’ve notified the FBI of the material — and when NBC learned all that junk was already in the hands of law enforcement — they should’ve burned the stuff in an incinerator. There is no public good served in the propagation of this kind of horror.

  4. NO BOUNDARIES
    I, too, was sickened by the obvious greed of NBC. This morning, MSNBC acknowledged the receipt of numerous e-mails that protested the airing of this “pornography,” as you call it (a very apt description). They fell on deaf ears.
    On one early morning news show, the appearance of a prominent forensic psychiatrist, who had dealt with several mass murderers, pleaded with a reporter to take the footage off the air, as no good could come of it and, it had the potential to raise the shooter to an icon status. His warnings were promptly dismissed by much hemming and hawing in the name of “responsibility to the public.”
    Despite the unpopularity of NBC’s decision, the network reporters persist in defending the broadcast of the shooter’s rantings– “This, after all, is a big story” (David Gregory) or “The public wants to know just what is behind the actions of the killer.” How about you just want a juicy story, even if it makes tabloid reporting seem tame?
    I cannot soley blame NBC. CNN and Fox News, in particular, also are callous to the feelings of the Virginia Tech surviviors, the students and the victims’ families, by continuing to play the disturbing footage and show the photos over and over and over again.
    I heard this morning on NBC that some of the victims’ families had cancelled interviews with NBC because they chose to give airtime to the shooter. Apparently, these messages also fell on deaf ears.
    The networks have crossed the line in responsible journalism. Insensitivity apparently knows no boundaries.

  5. Donna —
    NBC is certainly in CYA mode this morning and, you’re right, they do not care how callous they appear because they feel they scooped the competition.
    What they have really done is sealed their reputation to that of a mass murderer.
    I love it that the families are canceling interviews with NBC. Bravo! Don’t provide your tormentor access to the vulnerable parts of your body for continued torture and exploitation.
    I find the veneration of the killer much more offensive than anything Imus ever said — and the ironic part of the whole process is that if Imus had said what he said on Monday morning of this week — he’d still be on the air because the media would’ve ignored him for the “better” story of 32 dead kids.
    Newsweek magazine arrived yesterday packed with Imus coverage. In light of Virginia Tech, you sit there and think, “How quickly life changes” — and you realize the entire Newsweek effort was made null and void and “unnewsworthy” with the firing of hollow point bullets.

  6. Hi David,
    As far as the copyright claims go, I would assume that his act of sending the material to be aired on NBC gave NBC a license to use the manifesto. Also, they could claim Fair Use for new reporting activities. Like pornography, we seem to know news when we see it, even if it sometimes is hard to define. (Is Anna Nicole Smith news or entertainment?)
    I’ve seen similar pictures of people holding guns up to the camera. Here’s an example from Myspace of a woman aiming her gun at a camera.
    Seeing the VT killer holding his gun in a similar fashion on the front page of our local newspaper and on TV makes me wonder if people are just posing, or if they may be harboring serious intent?

  7. Chris —
    I don’t think the mere act of sending in material is enough of a permission — and NBC has never quoted the material from the shooter that explicitly grants them publication rights — much in the same way a writer sends in a manuscript to a publisher but does not grant anything more than reading.
    All authorship rights are protected in both cases.
    I argue you cannot publish in either instance without the expressed consent of the author and, by the time the shooter’s material arrived at the NBC studios — the author was already known dead — so those matters of publication directly fall to his immediate family and not NBC.
    If I send you an email or a letter you are not allowed to publish it without my permission. J.D. Salinger made that quite clear in the law.
    As I read the Doctrine of Fair use it appears to me to apply to material that is pre-existing in publication form — not something original and unpublished — and then you can only publish pieces and not the whole thing. The shooter didn’t put his work on the web. The police did not make the material public. I think NBC has a hard case to make this is Fair Use — or even newsworthy — when the material sent to them was protected by Copyright law and ownership of the material was in doubt since the author was dead.
    I hate those gun pictures. Those are truly pornographic and should be wholly outlawed.
    If you point a gun at someone — real, semiotically or in jest — you go to jail. You aren’t kidding around. Your action is aggressive and predetermined.

  8. Although it is difficult to avoid the coverage completely, you can avoid indulging in it when you see it. I have not read his statements nor watched his video. There is nothing valuable that I can learn from them that I don’t already know. The situation is sad, he was sick, and society played a role in his creation…
    Perhaps if we want to let NBC and all the rest know that we don’t want this kind of coverage, we should start an email compaign or petition to let them know their behavior is not acceptable anymore. Even the smallest acts can have a positive impact. I am sure we are numerous enough to get the point across.
    Thanks for the post!
    J.L. Munn
    P.S. I just wanted to point out that although you have not included his name, you have included his image. In a modern world, this is giving immortality as well. Anyone doing a search for “killer” could find the picture…

  9. Hi David,
    Even if using the gunman’s copyrighted material was an infringement, I bet there was a calculation that there was little likelihood that anyone would file a lawsuit to enforce any claimed rights.
    Maybe newspaper and television stations should have a “Miranda Warning” to warn people that anything they say can and probably will be used if it fits the editor’s needs and is newsworthy. Even if something is said to be “on background,” assume that the information — even if a copyright is claimed — will be disseminated via the media. Assume if someone from the media goes into your office, they might take something if it would make a good story.

  10. The media ethicists are discussing NBC’s decision to air the tape.
    Here are quotes from both sides of the issue from a SF Gate report written by Matthew B. Stannard:

    “If a tape or letter is newsworthy, then the public ought to be exposed to it, even if there is the downside of giving bad guys some publicity,” said Jerry Ceppos, formerly executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and now a fellow in media ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
    “I get uncomfortable when the media overthinks issues. In most cases, I’d rather share the information with the public and let them decide,” he said. “The journalist shouldn’t be in the position of playing God and deciding what people need to see and what people don’t need to see.”
    Theodore Glasser, who teaches ethics at Stanford University’s Graduate Program in Journalism, disagreed.
    “Editors don’t play God. Editors play editors, which means making decisions about what is broadcast and disseminated, and in what context. That’s what journalism is all about,” he said. “This is the kind of thing better described than shown … so that it doesn’t become sensationalized, which it is now.”

  11. Nicola!
    Yeah, but if you turn it off then you miss everything else! They hold us captive with what they CHOOSE to label newsworthy. I don’t like having to disconnect from the world to avoid what I consider obvious pornography.

  12. Chris —
    I think a cunning lawyer — and aren’t they all?! :mrgreen: — could make a case against NBC for Copyright infringement on behalf of the family and win millions of dollars and then the family can donate that profits to those their son killed. It would be a perfect end to a horrible story.
    I don’t think a blanket “if you send it to us, we’ll use it” would cut it when it comes to the publication of Copyrighted material. There needs to be an offer and an acceptance that is, somehow, recorded beyond the two parties. I don’t see that meeting of the minds in this case and, I would argue, the shooter was in not in a proper state of mind to be able to enter into a contract on the day of the killing anyway.
    I don’t think the networks can just make up and broadcast what they feel is the news. There needs to be journalistic integrity involved somewhere along the chain of command.

  13. David –
    There are a lot of ways to provide example. You are a good writer that could describe it just as easily as show it, probably better in this instance. You could also make sure his face is not visible. Given your additional arguments about copyright, NBC should have no recourse for you altering the image.
    It just seems arbitrary to me that a name is has more weight than an image for an issue that is centered a great deal around the use of images.

  14. This is from the NBC site (contact page – http://www.nbc.com/Footer/Contact_Us/).
    “Finally, NBC cannot accept, consider or pay for any unsolicited creative ideas or materials. If you send something anyway, you waive any claims with respect to your submission. So why send it?”
    It opens doors both way because of it’s glib wording, but is trying to express the sentiment that many publishers express. If you send it to us without us asking for it, you are telling us it is ours for free. Copyright law has NOT kept up with the times.
    J.L. Munn

  15. It hit our news fairly late in the day – last thing you want to be watching before you go to bed.
    We have and use the BBC on-line for the up to the minute stuff – thank goodness. Yes it was headlines on there but confined to one box that could be passed by. Sky News did nothing but have it on continuous roll since it broke.
    I like the idea Chris put forward ………. step up to the box please and sue them!

  16. Hi David,
    I wonder if Virginia has a law that prohibits criminals from profiting from their crimes? That would be a huge economic disincentive that would dissuade most people from filing a copyright lawsuit if all of the proceeds ended up being seized by the state for their victim’s compensation fund.
    If a copyright lawsuit was filed, there would multiple lawsuits filed against whoever made the copyright claim since the killer probably didn’t have many assets and because people would seek justice in the only way they can right now — through civil lawsuits.

  17. Chris —
    The criminal is dead, so if there’s any profit to be made it would be made via his family, right?
    I don’t think a law forbidding criminals to benefit from their crimes would apply in this case since the criminal would not have any benefit because he’s dead.
    Can you sue the parents for the sins of the adult child?

  18. An interesting article by Gregory M. Longworth about New York’s 2001 “Son of Sam” law from the New York State Bar Association was recently published.

    It is the rightful hand of justice reallocating the money to those parties who can have no real compensation, but are entitled to at least some form to the extent that the law is able to provide it.

    I don’t know if there are laws that say that family members can’t cash in to get a cut of the blood money. But, at the very least, if the parents profited from their son’s crimes, victims should argue that their enrichment would be unjust. I’m sure some would bring lawsuits to feel a sense of justice.
    Even if the plaintiffs weren’t successful, these cases would be the type that would involve emotion and principle and thus would likely be pursued without economic regard. Some attorneys would probably take the cases just to get on television and to increase their profile. Enraged parents would likely be able to collect money from other enraged citizens to finance their legal funds.
    I doubt that the killer’s parents would get the same sympathy if it looked like they were being cold-hearted and injuring the families of the victims by cashing in on the blood of the dead students.
    The parents of the victims could argue that they were trying to change the law in order to further important public policy in their efforts as they pursued their cases from the trial court, to the appellate courts, and possibly even higher. They’d also probably lobby state and federal legislatures hoping to get legislation for victims compensation passed, if there weren’t already appropriate legal remedies in place.
    Just remember Anna Nicole’s baby-daddy Larry Birkhead’s legal bill of $620,000 when there is any high profile litigation. How many hours at $500 per hour would be spent defending against 30+ possible lawsuits?
    If they tried to cash in — would indeed be an expensive and utterly draining venture for the killer’s family, even if the victim’s parents weren’t successful in gaining compensation.

  19. Hi Chris —
    Your points are all on target. As I said earlier, the only way to wrench money out of NBC for the airing of the material is with the stated agreement upfront that any money the family wins would go into a victims fund. I don’t think the idea would get very far if the family planned to keep the money for that would add insult upon insult and would not play well in court or in the court of public opinion.

  20. David,
    The argument you make in your article today reminds me of the film Natural Born Killers and its portrayal, albeit satirical, of the bloodthirsty mass media. How sad it is that a killer’s violent creations on paper and film are more important to the media, and therefore deemed more important to us, than his victims and their families. Obviously this is precisely the type of attention the killer craved; why else would he send these materials to NBC?

  21. Hi David,
    I wonder if there is any difference between the VT killer and the Iraqi insurgents who release videotapes to western media in the hopes of terrorizing people in the west?
    Here’s how CNN’s Brent Sadler describes the video tapes produced by Iraqi insurgents to be given to western reporters for play on television:

    “This video is straight from the mujahedeen,” journalist Michael Ware said as he viewed a tape at a hotel in Baghdad. “This is the Blackwater killings. They talk about planning it. I can’t believe this.” …
    “Something in the last few months has got them filming the most intimate, graphic attacks — like up-close and personal,” Ware said.
    “It’s like they are embedding combat camera units, who are there on the front line with them, knowing they are going to have propaganda value in time to come.”
    The other purpose for the videotapes, Ware said, is to terrorize Westerners.

    There’s little difference between the VT killer who rails against “rich kids” and the suicide bombers who release videotapes after their deaths. The intent to terrorize is all the same.
    The media needs to learn to resist the urge to become the microphone for manipulative and dangerous people.

  22. Right on, Chris!
    People know how to manipulate the media today for their own selfish ends and that’s where some kind of journalistic editorial eye needs to step forward and say, “No, this isn’t newsworthy” and not air it even if everyone else does.
    The major media did a pretty good job of resisting airing the beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg in the past — my feeling today is they would air those killings with a minor blur covering the actual moment of death.

  23. The excuse that journalists are using now is that airing these types of tapes can tip families off their kids could be going over the edge.
    Of course, most reasonable people would assume something might be up if they saw their kid waving guns around and mumbling about people who are causing him (or her) problems.
    If someone had a cell phone camera running at the time, I bet the media would run it and say it could be useful to help people caught in similar situations.

  24. Hi Chris!
    If people were in touch with their kids they wouldn’t need these visual reminders. I fear for the innocent, distant, kid who sits in the back of the room because he’s shy and internal and the possible mocking and “reporting to the authorities” that other students might take against him in misplaced fear of someone different.
    Actually, there was a cellphone video from a VTech student shown on the day of the shooting! It recorded several shots from inside the building! I guess no one at the networks realized those gunshots were the sounds of someone being assassinated!

  25. David,
    You are right, Killers is extremely gruesome. Still, it highlights the perverse relationship between the media and the criminals it claims to condemn (by immortalizing them) perfectly.
    I am glad you also linked to your earlier article on NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” another perfect example of the mass media salaciously licking its lips at the depraved acts of the lowest of human beings.

  26. It’s interesting that local news stations won’t report suicides and other incidents in their traffic reports and on the news, unless it is a famous person, public figure or was something that endangered the public.
    According to Roe Conn on WLS-AM, he said that the traffic reporters never report that people have killed themselves on the highway — people like to jump off overpasses into traffic — because of fear that it will encourage other people. The reports always say something along the lines of “an incident is causing traffic to jam” or “there is police activity blocking traffic.”
    The same thing used to be in effect for bomb scares, said Jim Johnson on Roe’s Show. The idea is that reporting a bomb threat encourages people to call in multiple bomb threats to shut down buildings, close schools, etc.
    Of course, there was a report today that someone jumped off a building and survived to argue with the paramedics who were called to the scene and that a Chicago-area school was evacuated because of a bomb threat in the wake of the VT shootings.

  27. Emily —
    Yes, that predator show skeeves me out. How hard it is to entrap mentally ill men into coming over for some sexual pleasure? They play into the fantasy and then strike them with reality and I just think it’s very easy pickings and here’s the website dedicated to explaining why the “Perverted Justice” gang are really sexual vigilantes:
    http://www.corrupted-justice.com/

  28. Chris —
    I wonder why suicides are not so widely reported?
    Have the media become more crass or are we as a people just more inured to death and decapitation?
    The old saying about the limits of free speech that include, “You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre” — seems to be spun on its head when it comes to reporting the news in that you CAN’T NOT report anything less salacious than those kind of indignant alarms pretending to be factual.

  29. Hi David,
    I think reporting about suicides is thought to cause other people to want to commit suicide as a way to become famous.
    Maybe it is an economic thing. It isn’t good to give people ideas where it might block transportation routes or scare people from visiting downtown areas.

  30. David,
    It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it? 😀
    That website is very interesting. The guy that leads Perverted Justice seems like a bit of a goofball to me.

  31. Yes, it isn’t that hard to lure horny, lonely men into anything! Somehow I have the feeling that an available ripe watermelon would entice as many perverts as those shown on the show and be much more entertaining in the process!
    I’m disappointed NBC got in bed with that outfit. They give much too much power, money, and exposure to such a small entity with few outside controls or third-party oversight.

  32. I agree that the media has made an absolute circus of the entire VT tragedy. News television stopped being news television the moment it began recognizing ratings as a way to validate what they put on the air. At the moment, it’s a mixture of “here’s some news headlines” and “here’s what we think you should be paying attention to (because it brings in money).”
    I love how Fox News tries to act unbiased and superior, condemning CNN for being liberal and inferior, and vice-versa. NBC, CBS and ABC all trying to drive each other out with sensationalist stories. All these things point to underlying problems in social media. People love shock culture, they love sad stories, and they love the completely odd and derranged. Good news is boring.
    The picture of the giant VT tragedy front page gamut aside the tiny article about the death toll in Iraq is so dead on target that it makes me sick. The Adminstration – despite their official “sad for the families” statement – is privately dancing in joy that for an entire two weeks, we’re going to be distracted from the continuing failure that is Iraq.