COMMENTS: Call Me Ishmael

The campus killer from Virginia Tech grabbed headlines from beyond the grave. An express mail package arrived at NBC News headquarters in New York City from Blacksburg Va. It contained a farewell videotape message as part of a presentation on the motives for his shooting spree. He mailed it to NBC in his hiatus on the morning of the murders, after two were dead, before he killed 30 others and himself. In the package's return address, the English-major-turned-murderer called himself Ishmael.

NBC, properly, shared the video with its rival news organizations--but only after prominently plastering its logo in the top left hand corner of the image. Airing the footage meant offering publicity to the venom of a serial killer, so NBC's anchor Brian Williams explained that it was not without weighing the journalistic ethics that the network decided to broadcast parts of the "multimedia manifesto" of 27 video clips, 43 still photographs, a 23-page single-spaced statement and an audio clip.

NBC's in-house analyst Clint van Zandt (no link), a former FBI profiler, intuited from the killer a "full knowledge that his words are going to be heard…this is the way he is further victimizing all of us." Williams himself acknowledged: "We are sensitive as to how all this will be seen by those affected." The fact that ABC and CBS, too, showed clips demonstrates that NBC was not out on a limb in its ethical judgment.

Of course it was correct to show the tape. It was a vivid and informative demonstration of the young man's despair, rage, anguish and humiliation: "You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today but you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off." Pete Williams described the tone of the 1,800-word diatribe as the same "me-against-the-world attitude" as found in the high school killers at Columbine HS in 1999. He called it incoherent and profane: "He rails against hedonism and Christianity."


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