This week's major news story was the murder of 32 people at Virgnia Tech. That would be major news any week of any year. It was horrific, and terrifying. But the week's cause celebre was the backlash over the insensitivity of the major media in broadcasting material sent to NBC by Cho Seung Hui, the killer. The publication of a so-called manifesto and video images mailed by Seung Hui sparked uror.
I for one am glad the images were published. I wondered in the wake of the shooting whether this were really the work of a lone deranged gunman, or whether it was the work of a terrorist. Sure, it sounds like a distinction without difference. Seung Hui inspired terror, and he did so for reasons all his own. He was, in a manner of speaking, a terrorist killing to call attention to private objectives -- a psychopathic jihad. But it mattered to me whether al Qaeda had discovered low-rent tactics.
Seeing Seung Hui assured me that the killings were the work of a lone student consumed by mental health problems. Hearing his voice made clear this blood-stained swath was the work of a disturbed soul. He looked like the kid next door.
Why the''anger at the media for sharing the information? We didn't knuckle under to the demands of a terrorist. The killer is dead and demands nothing. Sure, there are others like him out there. And there may be copy cats craving posthumous fame. But this is not an invitation to kill.
I was amazed to learn that some friends and family of victims refused to appear on television shows because Seung Hui's tape was rolled. That seems odd. Don't they want to understand the man who killed?
Is it that we would rather feel good than face facts? Without the tape, the airwaves would have been innundated with round after round of grieving folks, friends of the victims, family of the victims, friends of the friends of the family members, ad infinitum. I suppose all this is necessary as we process our collective grief, but it is not news.
Somehow the media has become obsessed with its own image. It is not enough to report facts. Now the media must manage the reaction to the facts lest ratings suffer. And, as in the case of Imus, when not reporting on facts, only pleasant, middle of the road sorts of opinions are to be tolerated. Imus was lynched over locker room chatter.
So instead of a meaningful conversation about race and sexism, we ostrasize a voice and congratulate ourselves on our sensitivity. And instead of trying to understand a mass murderer, we protest that we'd rather not know the killer in our midst. All we like sheep lead ourselves astray.
Would it be better in the Seung Hui case to leave the images to law enforcement? This father does not know best. I am unprepared to say to the FBI and various police departments: Go, do your job. You know best. Protect us but keep us from the knowledge of good and evil. These same folks have a tendency, when so emboldened, to view such things as warrants as mere options.
We're poorly served by a media afraid of its own shadow. If something is true and newsworthy, it should be reported. Opinion pieces should provoke. The Fourth Estate has a privileged place in our life because it is where debate and alternative points of view can challenge complacency and rein in those in power.
But now the media seems to have become aware of itself as a power. Its convergence towards a bland center leaves much undone and much unsaid.
Seung Hui was news this week. That there are others like him in our world is all but certain. Why do we run from the truth and seek merely to feel good? Is too much truth too frightening?