COMMENTS: Slowly Diminishing Returns

The intensity of the coverage of the Virginia Tech campus killings is diminishing in orderly, but extremely gradual, fashion. From Monday's high of 62 minutes, the day-by-day decline has gone from 54 to 38 and it is now 26. For the second straight day, a headline-worthy event inside-the-Beltway had to take second place. Yesterday, coverage of the killings elbowed the Supreme Court's abortion ruling to one side; today it was the grilling of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over his firing of those eight US Attorneys by the Senate Judiciary Committee. By rights, today's developments in the Virginia Tech story should have less newsworthy than they turned out to be. A prominent angle that sustained it was a self-referential one: the controversy over the airing by TV news organizations of the killer's self-made videotape.

The concrete news developments in the Virginia Tech story consisted of tying up loose ends about how the killer armed himself. On NBC, which uses Cho Seung-Hui to identify the suicidal gunman, Pete Williams examined the extent of his arsenal: police found 17 discarded bullet magazines at the crime scene, meaning that at least 200 shots were fired in his spree. His bullets were hollow pointed, "generally considered more lethal" and he practiced his marksmanship at a range in Roanoke Va last month. On CBS, which uses Seung-Hui Cho, the killer's dormitory neighbor Karan Grewal talked to Sharyn Alfonsi. He described how Cho's plot seemed to begin in February, when he started working out at the gym and sitting in the common room "silently watching his roommates."

On ABC, which also goes by Seung-Hui Cho, Jake Tapper examined how Cho could legally buy his guns despite a court-ordered diagnosis of mental illness. Tapper pointed out that federal law prevents the sale of firearms to anyone found "mentally defective" but leaves it to each state to define the term. Virginia has one of the narrowest definitions in the nation: refusing sales to those who have been committed as in-patients but permitting guns for out-patients. Advocates for the mentally ill oppose broadening the ban as creating "a greater stigma."


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