NBC News’s decision to broadcast Cho Seung-Hui’s final message earned the network major ratings, and a heap of criticism. But you had to look north of the border to find a major news outlet that didn’t follow NBC’s lead. CBC editor in chief Tony Burman explains why the CBC left the manifesto alone.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. We all know what happened this week – the killing and the confession, if you can call it that, express- mailed to NBC. MEREDITH VIEIRA: The decision to air some of the images he sent to us, the video clips and the photos, and to discuss what was contained in that rambling and hate-filled manifesto was not taken lightly. It was not made quickly. And we understand that this is going to be seen as devastating to many people who lost loved ones in this shooting.
In fact, I will tell you that we had planned to speak to some family members of victims this morning, but they canceled their appearances because they were very upset with NBC for airing the images. BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to NBC's Meredith Vieira, it was a tough call, but how tough really? NBC News was losing to ABC in the ratings, and Cho Seung-Hui's multimedia missive must have seemed like a gift.
Still, on the issue of whether to air or not to air, my reflex kicked in against "nannyism," that is, withholding news out of some ill-defined notion of what's good for the public. The public, after all, voted with their remotes Wednesday night. But then it played again and again, and then again, on the morrow. And I still held that Cho's dark testimony was part of the public record.
But as Thursday wore on and TV remained fixed on Cho's grimace, his guns, his everlasting 15 minutes, I couldn't escape the conclusion that there probably was no right way to show this stuff, and that perhaps it shouldn't be shown at all. BOB GARFIELD: That was the conclusion of the Canadian Broadcasting Company. The CBC decided it would opt out. It wasn't such a hard decision, says CBC editor-in-chief Tony Burman, especially after last fall's college shooting in Montreal. That gunman killed one student and wounded nineteen others, before killing himself. Burman says it set off a process of serious soul searching at the CBC. TONY BURMAN: There was a lot of reflection in Canada about whether our coverage went on too long, whether there turned out to be too much focus on the killer, perhaps in a way unintentionally glorifying him and his act and his motives.
And a few weeks after that, the Amish killing in Pennsylvania occurred, and I think a lot of specialists in the field started saying, hey, there's now been about six shootings in about six weeks in North America, and there's considerable evidence that there's a copycat killing kind of dimension to it.
So we as a news organization decided the next time this will happen that we'll pull back on our coverage, we'll focus more on the victims, more on the public policy issues and we'll go out of our way avoiding inadvertently glorifying the killer in ways that would trigger similarly deranged people. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the network took great pains to say how it struggled making the decision. Do you believe that they really struggled with this one or do you think that the ratings imperative was paramount from the moment the express mail package landed on the desk? TONY BURMAN: I mean, I obviously can't speak for their kind of inner motive. I mean, I think the brutality of the commercial broadcast game is such now that I have to assume that ratings played a factor. I think that what is sad about that is that the backlash that is being directed towards NBC and other organizations far outweighs any kind of temporary ratings blip. BOB GARFIELD: Well, actually, I want to ask you about that, and this is a question really about your standing to take such a principled position, because as a national public broadcaster, your job doesn't hinge on ratings the way that maybe Steve Capus' does at NBC. You're just not in a ratings-sensitive position and, therefore, can make journalistic decisions for purely journalistic reasons. No? TONY BURMAN: Oh, I wish life was like that, Bob, but it isn't. That's not true. I mean, CBC, unlike the BBC, the CBC in Canada, although we're a public broadcaster, we're a mixed model. We're commercial and public funds. The majority of our funding is through commercial advertising, cable fees. So I think that we have a – and I say this with some sadness – a genuine commercial imperative now at the CBC in 2007.
But I guess our calculation is that if we want to get as large an audience as we can, and that is what our commitment is, that we have to be more than simply sensational on a Wednesday night. We have to be responsible and credible and insightful over a long period of time. BOB GARFIELD: You referred earlier to the idea of focusing more on the victims and less on the perpetrator. But isn't that really antithetical to the whole idea of spot news coverage? The victims' question is, you know, fundamentally answered. They are victims. The outstanding question of who, what, when, where, why and how all leads to the shooter. Is there anything wrong in these incidents with trying to find out everything we can about these guys' motivation and their back stories? TONY BURMAN: No, and I actually don't think it's a choice between one or the other, in the sense of, yes, I think that the focus on the perpetrator is important as it relates to motive. But there also should be a lot of focus on some of the real public policy issues which are related to these incidents.
In this case, the issue of gun control is quite obvious, the issue of what kind of access do people, including this man, have to care within the university setting before he goes over the deep end. But I think once you cross into the area of kind of vicarious curiosity where you're learning aspects of this individual that really are not germane – they're voyeuristic – then you're really taking your resources and your air time away from some of the hard issues.
And what a lot of the specialists are telling us is that we should be, you know, as news media, far more balanced and holistic in our treatment so that, at the end of the day, one's memory of the event is not simply some deranged lunatic who has his 15 seconds of fame. What good does that do? BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Tony. Thank you so much. TONY BURMAN: You're very welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Tony Burman is editor-in-chief of CBC News.