There is a good reason why the New York Times is the New York Times. You saw it on Sunday when it printed, on its front page, an exemplary story by N.R. Kleinfeld about how Seung-Hui Cho came to launch the most horrifying school gun rampage we've yet seen.
It was flagged "The Gunman/A Loner Becomes a Killer" and came with this headline: "Before Deadly Rage/A Lifetime Consumed by Troubling Silence." Combined with the AP profile of Cho that moved Thursday, it came close to telling me what I wanted to know -- well, some of it anyway.
That's why I can't even begin to join the castigation of NBC for its "insensitivity" in airing Cho's photographs and rantings, printed and otherwise. Nor do I subscribe for a second to the notion that by using the material he sent to NBC in his devil's box that NBC was guilty of "giving the killer what he wanted."
I don't think, frankly, that it's journalism's job, one way or another, to make its decisions based on whether or not a mass-murdering monster would be pleased, any more than it was Tacitus' job to be "tasteful" and "sensitive" writing about Nero and the burning of Rome (though Tacitus DID decline to expound in detail on Nero's innumerable murders.)
If, in the grand inarguable old phrase, journalism is "the first rough draft of history," then there's no question, to me, that every word and photograph and tape in that package should belong to the world at large. It should be available to any American who wants an answer to the questions that burn and bedevil all of us: Where DO these horrifying rage machines come from? What creates them? Enables them? And what can society do to stop them?
No one wants, for a second, to add to the grief and pain of the victims' friends and families. But those who are misapprehending journalism's function may be helping to do just that.
Before Cho's box of "you made me do this" ravings was delivered to NBC, I watched Brian Williams on NBC and MSNBC posture his way through revulsion at Cho and his incoherence, rage, foul language and, so help me, "narcissism." And then, three sentences later, he told us how he and his colleagues came back with suntans from Virginia Tech after standing outside all day doing interviews. The idea that we needed Williams' lavish expressions of sorrow and disgust -- lest we think he approves of slaughter -- is itself a kind of atrocity.
It's the cliched template of news coverage of these young lunatics that, I think, may be helping to create them. You can write it yourself -- the angry loner and misogynist and anti-social freak and every other pejorative you can think of for "discomforting," none of which tell you a single useful or important thing about the perpetuation of horrific violence and death (and, too, you might well be describing Beethoven, Van Gogh and August Strindberg while you're at it). It's all posturing bushwa taking the place of information rather than providing it.
That, for instance, is why I'm grateful to my colleagues Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel for writing their book about Timothy McVeigh, "American Terrorist," to answer the first questions history would have: Who WAS the man whose bomb murdered so many in Oklahoma City? And what did he think he was doing? It simply didn't matter what McVeigh wanted or didn't. Nor, I think, did such a full examination of him exacerbate the victims' families and friends, who will never be the same. Truth is the cure, not the illness.
All information about such events is painful to someone. Feelings do have to be taken into account. But that doesn't change facts. Or their need to come out.
It just so happens that our age has given us a solution to NBC's dilemma -- to release or not to release the contest of Cho's devil's box.
The Internet now provides us with a way to publish and broadcast every word and photo by this horrifically disturbed young man, who caused so much anguish in the world. Why not put every comma and bead of sweat on the NBC Web site for any citizen who wants an answer to the questions that so painfully burn us all: Where DO these kids come from? What creates them? And what can we do to change a world that creates them?