Fox News Channel Senior Vice President John Moody distributed a memo to his staff this morning announcing the network's decision to "severely restrict" its use of the media package Cho Seung-Hui sent to NBC News.
"We see no reason to continue assaulting the public with these disturbing and demented images," Moody wrote.
Seeing as Fox had been running continuous loops of Cho's horror show ever since NBC News first broadcast it, the network was just a tad late in locating the public's sensitivities to disturbing and demented images. Moody's grandstanding reminded me of the scene from L.A. Confidential where the LAPD captain confronts the corrupt detective: "Don't start trying to do the right thing, boyo. You haven't had the practice."
But Fox wasn't alone in its belated discovery that too much Cho could be too much Cho. NBC News dittoed Fox in this release: "Beginning this morning, we have limited our usage of the video across NBC News, including MSNBC, to no more than 10 percent of our airtime." CBS News and ABC News—which would have also churned the Cho videos and pictures into a fine multimedia pulp if they had cable outlets—offered similar communiqués.
What caused TV news to suddenly retreat in search of higher moral ground?
NBC News needn't apologize to anybody for originally airing the Cho videos and pictures. The Virginia Tech slaughter is an ugly story, but the five W's of journalism—who, what, where, when, and why—demand that journalists ask the question "why?" even if they can't adequately answer it. If you're interested in knowing why Cho did what he did, you want to see the videos and photos and read from the transcripts. If you're not interested, you should feel free to avert your eyes.
The real story here is the odd restraint NBC News showed. Cho mailed NBC News about two dozen QuickTime videos, of which the network has aired only a handful. NBC anchor Brian Williams said last night that the network is also holding back Cho photos, as well as Cho writings it deems incoherent and obscene. It seems to think that it's protecting viewers by rationing Cho material while at the same time it reruns the already released video indiscriminately. (I wonder if Fox News would be so circumspect if it were sitting on a stockpile of fresh Cho. Actually, I don't really wonder.)
I suspect the networks stopped the Cho reruns in an effort to pre-empt criticisms that they are 1) needlessly upsetting people and 2) inspiring potential copycat killers. As a practical matter, I'll bet they were having a hard time getting the families of the murdered to talk to them as long as The Cho Show was running.
The Cho affair reveals once again how dependent cable news is on video wallpaper. Whenever a major story arrives, the cable news networks are forced to loop the most arresting images, even if they're days or a week old, to give correspondents and sources an animated backdrop against which to talk. If the story is 9/11, the wallpaper is looped tape of the crash. If the story is the New Orleans catastrophe, it's folks wading in chest-high water or looting stores. If the story is the space shuttle Columbia, it's the death ship streaking its path across the sky like fireworks again and again.
Cable news reruns are usually defensible because nobody but invalids—and perhaps TVNewser—watches the stations around the clock. Viewers dip in for five minutes here, 15 or 30 minutes there, and then flit away. Few notice how much recycling goes on.
When a major story like Virginia Tech breaks, viewers linger, wanting to know more. There's nothing wrong with that expectation. But having committed to going wall-to-wall with the Cho murders, the networks are too cowardly to tell viewers that only 30 minutes of essential Cho story exists, and that viewers should feel free to turn their sets off after they watch that much. Instead, the networks added soy extender and sawdust to inflate 30 minutes of solid news into a six- or seven-hour marathon.
There's a path around this quandary. In his book The Language of New Media, scholar Allen Bells reports how the BBC responded in 1930 when it was confronted with a "shortage of news deemed worthy to broadcast." The Beeb didn't dress up yesterday's broadcast with new comments from another expert. Instead, the announcer would admit, "There is no news tonight."
If only today's broadcasters were as honest.
There is no more Press Box tonight. However, piles of fascinating and informative reader e-mails accumulate at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)