Return to Transcripts main page
CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
The Massacre at Virginia Tech
Aired April 22, 2007 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): The media and the massacre. Should NBC have played the hate-filled videos of the Virginia Tech gunman, or was the network and the other networks that followed suit giving a final victory to a mass murderer? Have the media covered the slaughter of 32 students with sensitivity or intruded on their grieving in Blacksburg?
And in pressing school authorities and the police and the mental health experiences who examined Cho Seung-Hui, and in airing the perennial debates over violent entertainment and gun control, is the press playing the blame game?
We'll ask NBC News president Steve Capus; CBS' Sharyn Alfonsi, in Blacksburg, Virginia; columnist Gene Robertson; and CNN's Soledad O'Brien.
KURTZ: We've all been grappling for answers. How did it happen? Why did it happen? How could a deranged young man snuff out 32 innocent lives on a college campus?
As if to taunt us from the grave, Cho Seung-Hui, between shootings, mailed a package to NBC News. Now the question became: should the network play the hate-filled video and show the rambling note from the Virginia Tech killer?
Brian Williams provided the answer.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: We are sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected and we know we are, in effect, airing the words of a murderer here tonight.
KURTZ (voice over): Other networks quickly picked up the footage from NBC. Newspapers across America splashed the pictures on their front pages.
Some relatives of the Virginia Tech victims were angry at NBC, as was quickly apparent on the "Today Show".
MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: We had planned to speak to family members of victims this morning, but they cancelled their appearances because they were very upset with NBC for airing the images.
KURTZ: Within 24 hours, the networks were forced to acknowledge that much of the public was furious with them for showing the Cho tape.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Good evening. There is new outrage tonight over the tragedy at Virginia Tech, and it is directed at the media.
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Angry reaction aimed at news outlets, including this one, for airing portions of it.
WILLIAMS: It forced us into a painful decision to air by what was, by any inconceivable standard, news.
KURTZ: Joining us now here in Washington, Bill Press, columnist and host of "The Bill Press Show" on Sirius Satellite Radio. In Philadelphia, Gail Shister, television writer for "The Philadelphia Inquirer". And in Irvine, California, radio talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt, author of the new book "A Mormon in the White House: Ten Things Every American Should Know About Mitt Romney".
Gail Shister, were network executives really taken aback by the sheer intensity of the negative reaction to the airing of this tape?
GAIL SHISTER, "THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER": I don't know how they couldn't have been, Howie. I mean, it was huge. I can tell you that I had an avalanche of e-mails from people who were upset.
It was a unique situation. I don't know how anyone couldn't have been upset, not only for the families themselves, but for the horror of being confronted -- it was almost a verbal assault seeing this disturbed young man holding the guns, and there wasn't a paper in America that didn't run a picture the next day of him holding the guns.
I think the networks may have underestimated that they would get the backlash that they did.
KURTZ: I think I agree with that.
Hugh Hewitt, you've told the world that you were appalled by NBC's decision to air part of this videotape. Why?
HUGH HEWITT, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, Howard, a number of reasons.
First of all, it was torture to the victims and survivors. Parents who had lost children, children who had lost fathers, spouses who had lost husbands and their extended families saw the man who took them to the next world in -- as he wanted to be seen. And I thought, along with most psychiatrists, it was just abuse and torture. I also think in the words of Mickey Kaus, NBC is now the go-to network for mass murderers. And mass murderers have been affected by this. KURTZ: But you know, I was on your radio show...
HEWITT: Yes, you were.
KURTZ: ... a half hour before those images hit NBC, and you were complaining, why were they holding it? Why wasn't -- were they trying to get a ratings bonanza for "NBC Nightly News"? It turns out -- it turns out they were holding it at the request of the Virginia State Police authorities.
HEWITT: No, I wanted them to release his written redacted statement. But I agreed with you that I would be very angry if they showed the images.
I think it was you, Howard, who said, if they show one photograph, you could understand that. But I think that what has followed has been the incentivizing of mass murder, and NBC will have blood on its hands the next time someone sends a video to their network of their mayhem.
KURTZ: Well, that's a pretty strong statement.
Bill Press, you're a liberal. You probably disagree with Hugh Hewitt on most things. So surely you see NBC's journalistic responsibility here.
BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I find myself in somewhat of a state of shock to agree with Hugh Hewitt this morning, not to agree with Gail Shister. But look, I think it was very insensitive, it was inappropriate, and it was totally unnecessary. And Hugh is right, it gave this killer a chance to stalk this campus one more time in death after he had flattened 32 people tragically in life.
But here's what gets me, Howie, is that this is the second time in two weeks that I believe NBC was caught flatfoot. They didn't do anything about Imus until the sponsors pulled the spots, and then they realized, oh, we didn't go far enough with Don Imus, and they didn't do anything about this video.
They didn't sense that it was wrong until the families and campus officials started to object. So what's wrong with NBC?
KURTZ: On the other hand, Gail Shister, what would have been the reaction if NBC had said, oh, you know what, this material is so horrible, we're not going to release any of it, we're going to bury it under the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center?
SHISTER: I think -- I think this is a very delicate situation, and I think it's easy to Monday morning quarterback this, the call on this. I think that there was a lot of pressure, I think that it was the most intense story of the moment in the country.
It got to the point where people were saying, "Imus who?" I think it's easy to say NBC shouldn't have done it.
I have gone back and forth on this, I have to say. So, as a mother, I can understand why, of course, it was -- there is nothing more horrendous. But maybe NBC could have waited 24 hours. I don't know.
It seems to me that would be another option before they decide what to do. NBC went on record as saying, we waited seven hours, we didn't rush the video on the air. I don't see any downside to waiting a full day.
Maybe they could have done that. Then maybe people would have been more ready for that, and it would have given NBC more time to carefully edit it.
KURTZ: Hugh Hewitt, now ABC, NBC, FOX say they're not airing this video anymore at all, CNN says not airing it except with limited exceptions. But in the first 24 hours, wasn't part of the problem not just NBC, but that every network on the planet, with the exception of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, I found out, was running this footage until it became video wallpaper?
HEWITT: Howard, it is part of the problem. But not every network. My show in 100 cities did not air a second of his audio, because it would be reprehensible to do so. And it isn't a close call.
Instantly, even before it was released, your reaction on my show was the same as the reaction -- I spent three days covering this from left, right and center, from various psychiatric experts, that this was a horrible thing to do. Dr. Michael Welner, an ABC News consultant, likened it to the release of a toxic cloud.
It has consequences. Yes, the copycat networks went out and did a terrible thing, but it goes back to NBC. And I would like to ask Steve Capus at some point, did they ask one serious forensic psychiatrist what the impact of this video would be on other unstable people?
If they had, they would not have done this. There were alternatives. They could have put it under a password-protected site, they could have released it three years from now on the Internet only.
What they did was astonishingly stupid and irresponsible. And until they apologize, the public will not let up on them.
SHISTER: Could I jump in here, Howie?
Do you think that any other network would have reacted any differently?
HEWITT: I don't know. I hope so. I hope that some of them would have taken at least 24 hours to talk to a psychiatrist, because it's like asking the media to treat unstable people.
They were having an impact on these individuals who will be killers in the future, because that which gets rewarded gets repeated.
PRESS: You see, Howie, this is what bothers me about this -- if I could just jump in here, too -- that clearly this man had a very, very sick mind. He felt he was a victim. He craved attention.
He wanted the spotlight, and we gave it to him. And you're right, it wasn't just NBC. I saw it everywhere. We gave him exactly what he wanted.
KURTZ: It was -- all the newspapers used that image of him with the guns.
PRESS: Yes, absolutely.
KURTZ: And so...
PRESS: But the last time we saw something like this...
KURTZ: So is every journalistic organization, with the exception of some radio talk show hosts who refused to play it, are they all wrong you're right?
PRESS: No, I think the people are right, and I think the media made a collective bad call here.
HEWITT: Howard, can I jump in? Because you were right. You were right on that day before they aired it.
I asked you on the air -- it's posted at hughhewitt.com, and you said, "Don't do it. You will give the killer exactly what he wants." That's not Monday morning quarterbacking, and it's what any serious analyst would have come to the conclusion had they been asked by NBC.
PRESS: Just finished my thought. The last time we saw something like this was Columbine, and it's not by accident that Cho referenced Eric and Dylan in this video. He saw their anger, he saw that video. He was replaying it, and we allowed it to happen.
KURTZ: But not every even conservative agrees. For example, Bill O'Reilly on his FOX News show, let's see what he had to say about this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: I ran the tape last night, and I would do it again. Here's why. Evil must be exposed, and Cho was evil. You can see it in his face, hear it in his voice. All of us who saw the tape will never forget it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Gail Shister, what about the argument that we needed to see this because we needed to have this sort of glimpse inside the mind of a deranged killer?
SHISTER: I never thought I would say I agree with Bill O'Reilly, but in this situation I do agree with him. I think that it does give you an insight into a demented mind.
HEWITT: What insight, Gail? What insight does it give you? It gives you nothing.
Tim Rutten, "L.A. Times" critic, said that's bovine excrement to argue insight. What did it tell you that you did not know?
SHISTER: I think it gives you an insight into what he was thinking at that particular moment. You get to see his face.
HEWITT: I'm asking you, what was it?
SHISTER: You get to see his eyes. You get to see the sound, the tone of his voice.
HEWITT: But what does that do for you?
SHISTER: It gives you information. That what it gives you.
HEWITT: It does not give you anything that anyone didn't know. That's absurd.
PRESS: I have to say, I think we learned nothing from the tape. The FBI said -- or the law enforcement officials said they learned nothing from the tape. I knew, and I think everybody knew before we saw this tape, that this was a sick, deranged man who had done a horrible thing, and we didn't need to know any more.
KURTZ: Let's me ask you, Bill Press, about the debates that we've seen on television this week and in the newspapers about gun control. That happens every time there is a mass shooting.
KURTZ: But gun control is primarily a liberal issue. So does this suggest to you that there is liberal media at work here driving this gun control debate?
PRESS: I'll tell you, frankly, I was shocked and disappointed that there wasn't more discussion about gun control. I think when somebody goes on a campus, is able to get -- particularly when we find out that he's been declared mentally ill by a judge, that he's been declared an imminent danger to himself and to others by a judge, and he's able to get in to a gun store, walk in to a gun store, and walk out with a handgun, there are serious questions that should be asked. I was stunned that Democrats were so silent about it, and the media, for the most part, was silent about it.
KURTZ: Well, I wouldn't silent, but...
PRESS: Not much, though.
KURTZ: ... Hugh Hewitt, isn't this what the media are supposed to do? A lot of people wanted to know, how did he get these two guns?
HEWITT: Before the media rushes off to talk about the Second Amendment, they ought to be talking about the First Amendment. And before any gun control issue is aired, they ought to talk about media self-control.
Howard, the public, who I talk to every day, is not talking about gun control. They are talking about NBC and it's craven decision.
And every time media turns attention to the gun control issue, they are turning attention away from their own culpability in the next killing. It is incumbent upon the networks and every broadcaster, myself included, to look at what we have done here, how we have tortured these victims, and how we have empowered killers that will be able to get guns, that who were incentivized by NBC's action and the copycat (INAUDIBLE).
KURTZ: Well, that debate is going to go on for a while.
I've got to get a break here.
Gail Shister, Hugh Hewitt, Bill Press, thanks for joining us.
And as we go to break, let's look at some magazine covers, all of whom handled this story without showing the gunman.
"TIME" magazine -- if we can put that up -- and "Newsweek" magazine. "TIME" showing obviously many of the victims. "Newsweek," "The Mind of a Killer".
"The Economist." there's your gun control debate. There's the gun.
Up next, the president of NBC News, Steve Capus, checks in to talk about his decision to air that video.
KURTZ: When the package containing the Virginia Tech gunman's video and rambling manifesto arrived at 30 Rock in New York, the decision on whether to air it fell to one man. NBC News president Steve Capus made the call, and he joins us now by phone.
Steve Capus, thank you for checking in.
As you well know, a lot of people out there have said about the airing of this video -- we've had a couple of guests on, on this program who were very critical of it.
In hindsight, are you very comfortable with the decision that you made?
STEVE CAPUS, PRESIDENT, NBC NEWS: I am. I think it was journalistically the right thing to do. And I believe we handled it as best we could. It was an extremely difficult decision and difficult process that we put through, but I think that we took extraordinary steps to handle it in the appropriate manner. You know, I hear people say, including one of your last guests, say that we should have just put all of the written words out, which in my mind would have been much, much worse. We didn't publish his long-rambling so-called manifesto. We held it back, specifically for the reasons that people are arguing about now.
You know, it was the right editorial call to only release a very small fraction of all of this material that came in here. And what we released was a photograph -- was videotape that showed someone on the edge, someone clearly about to boil over. And to me, it's akin to what we're reading now about what he was writing in his English department classes, in his essays, what he -- you know, all this videotape he was gathering up.
He had been playing this for such a long time. The videotape underscores that. And I think it was representative of where he was.
This -- this didn't glorify him. The act that in his mind glorified it was the act that he carried out with those two guns.
KURTZ: Right. Now, you know, every major American television network, every major American newspaper, did the same thing, reached the same decision, showing the video, or in the case of the print media, showing the pictures.
Do you think that some people out there don't understand that journalism sometimes involves publishing or airing things that some folks are going to find offensive?
CAPUS: Sometimes good journalism is bad public relations. I understand that. But we also -- we spent hours, hours, all day long. We didn't -- we didn't reveal to the world that we had this material as we worked on the editorial decisions.
Everything from, should we run this, to should we release everything, as some of our competitors were screaming at us that we had an obligation to "release everything". And some of the same competitors, by the way, who have raised questions now about our handling of it, which I find interesting.
But, you know, it's just shameful for someone like Hugh Hewitt to say we're going to have blood on our hands. That's a diversionary talk from someone who wants to put focus on the media instead of on very difficult issues to deal with, like mental illness, like how people like this are, you know, on campuses. You know, the gun control debate has to be part of this.
Don't say that that's a diversion from NBC. That's absurd.
KURTZ: So are you saying that some of your competitors, some of the other television networks, were perfectly happy to run a lot of this video on the first day, even more, in some cases, at NBC News programs, and now are saying, oh, this is terrible, you gave this psychopath what he wanted and so on?
CAPUS: We were getting calls from people saying we had an obligation to release everything, Howie. And, you know, given how quickly people just turned around the videotape as soon as it aired on NBC -- we had spent, you know, seven and a half hours from the time that that thing came into the building until the first images aired.
We didn't release -- we didn't, you know, do an announcement that said we had this thing. We were quietly working with the authorities every step of the way. They applauded us for our handling of the matter. They disagreed with how much video should be used, but they applauded us for the way we worked with them, and that was the right thing to do.
KURTZ: Steve Capus, this aired on "NBC Nightly News" on Wednesday night and again on the "Today Show" on Thursday morning. And some time after that, you said that MSNBC, your cable network, should air no more than six minutes per hour.
KURTZ: Up to six minutes per hour -- no?
CAPUS: Well, actually, Howie, that mandate to MSNBC went out at 11:00 Wednesday night, 11:00 p.m.
KURTZ: OK. My reason in bringing it up is to ask you, was this in any way a recalibration on your part about how much of this should be out there? Or why did you make that decision to limit the use?
CAPUS: Oh, I think -- I think we made the same decision again that every -- that all journalists made, which was that we were going to restrict the use. And to me, it's completely in sync with the original editorial decision we made.
If you think that there was 25 minutes of videotape, we released such a small fraction. There's something like 43, 45 photographs. We released a handful.
There's 23 pages of documents. We have released just some sampling of his words.
We held that back because we didn't think it was appropriate to put everything out there. Then we would be guilty of being -- of playing into his hands, if you will, and just giving him the spotlight. We -- we -- this was a portrait of this individual who clearly had problems. Now there needs to be appropriate discussion about what -- about the months leading up to this, where were -- where were the people who blew through the warning signs or ignored the warning signs?
KURTZ: I do think the fact that you released only a fraction of the material has kind of gotten lost in the debate.
And Steve Capus, we very much appreciate your calling in this morning. CAPUS: Well, of course it gets lost in the debate when you have somebody say that we've got blood on our hands. I mean, it's crazy, Howie.
KURTZ: Well, that's not a statement that I would endorse.
Steve Capus, good to talk to you this morning.
CAPUS: Thank you.
KURTZ: When we come back, Sheryl Crow creates quite a stir at the White House Correspondents Dinner last night , and a private rant becomes all too public.
Our "Media Minute" up next.
KURTZ: Time for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute".
Journalists are often criticized for getting too cozy with administration officials at these big media dinners. But guests, well, they play by different rules.
At last night's White House Correspondents Dinner, environmental activist Laurie David and singer Cheryl Crow walked over to Karl Rove's table and began pressing the White House aide about global warming.
Laurie David promptly recorded the confrontation on her blog at "The Huffington Post". She writes that Rove "exploded like a child throwing a tantrum," and told Crow not to touch him, prompting Crow to declare, "You can't speak to us like that. You work for us."
But it was Rove who felt put upon by Crow, telling "The Washington Post," "She came over to insult me and she succeeded."
It's the voicemail heard round the world. Actor Alec Baldwin leaving a screaming message for his 11-year-old daughter, leaked to the gossip site TMZ.com, probably by Baldwin's ex-wife, Kim Basinger. And to tell you the truth, I feel a little queasy about playing it, but it's gotten so much attention that I want to make a point.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: You are a rude, thoughtless little pig. I don't give a damn that you're 12 years old, or 11 years old, of that you're a child. You have humiliated me for the last time with this phone."
(END AUDIO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, that is just awful. An 11-year-old girl. And I hope Baldwin is embarrassed. But how would any of us felt if we just plain lost it in private and a recording was slipped to the media in the middle of bitter of a custody battle.
That's just plain sleazy. But maybe no longer surprising in our YouTube culture.
Coming up in the second half hour of this program, how should journalists behave when they descend on a small town struck by tragedy? "The Washington Post's" Gene Robinson, CNN's Soledad O'Brien and CBS' Sharyn Alfonsi on their experiences in Blacksburg, Virginia.
And later, facebook.com and cell phone cameras dramatically changed the coverage of the Virginia Tech story. Two top bloggers on the new media landscape.
And later, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern today, join CNN's Tom Foreman for "THIS WEEK AT WAR".
Here's a preview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: ... showing signs of success. But when you speak with Iraqis, they still remain petrified of these massive bombings.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no doubt in my mind that the Army is broken.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have challenges across the board.
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In Diyala, we're now seeing levels of violence doubled.
ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They believe that they came into power with a mandate to change the course of the war.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Welcome back.
From the moment we got word of the first shooting at Virginia Tech, news organizations mobilized to get their people to the scenic college town of Blacksburg. It is one of the most difficult assignments in journalism, showing up after a huge tragedy and trying to make sense of it all while being sensitive to the almost unimaginable grief of friends and loved ones.
Joining us now are three reporters who spent time on the campus this week.
Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for "The Washington Post". In New York, Soledad O'Brien, anchor and special correspondent for CNN. And from Blacksburg, Virginia, CBS' Sharyn Alfonsi.
Sharyn Alfonsi, you're still there after a very long week. What has been like to spend these days at Virginia Tech? Do you feel in any way that you are intruding on people in their greatest moment of grief?
SHARON ALFONSI, CBS: I think you do feel like you are intruding. I think if you don't feel that way, then you probably don't a heart.
It's difficult to be around here. You know, there's a memorial in the center of campus that keeps growing, and while it's interesting to show that to our viewers at home, at the same time you kind of want to step back and allow people kind of just a chance to see that and have that moment by themselves.
So I think you just have to be very careful. It's a delicate situation still, even now.
KURTZ: Soledad O'Brien, among the interviews you did was one with a father who lost his son. And obviously those are very emotional moments.
How hard is it to distance yourself and be a journalist and conduct a straight interview, when your heart just must go out to these people?
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I don't think it's about distancing yourself at all. I think it's actually about connecting.
I mean, I'm a parent. I can't even imagine what these parent are going through.
I think it's about asking people, do you want to talk to us? Do you have something to say? And I'm truly am surprised, but often in tragedies people do.
He lost his daughter, and he wanted to talk about her so much. So much. He wanted to get the story about it -- about this beautiful, amazing young woman whose life was lost.
And then when I asked him, "Well, who do you blame? And what about the killer?" He said, "You know, that's not going to bring her back. I don't want to focus on that." And I thought that was interesting.
He had a lot to say. It wasn't a matter of exploiting his grief. He came to us and said, "I really want to tell you my story." I thought that was really interesting.
And I have to tell you, I've seen it again. I've seen it in Columbine, I've seen it in the tsunami, I've seen it certainly in Hurricane Katrina. You see it again and again. Some people want to talk, other people really would prefer to be left alone.
KURTZ: At the same time, Gene Robinson, "The New York Times" reports that there were some flyers on the campus now that say, "Media, go home," because while individual reporters may try to be sensitive, you have these hoards that went down to the campus.
Did you detect any resentment of the media invasion?
EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST": Not while I was there. I went down Monday night and left late Wednesday.
And arriving on Monday night, it was amazing. You kind of land at the big complex, the hotel, media center, alumni center complex, where there were already scores of satellite trucks in the parking lot. And students were streaming in for grief counseling.
And, you know, I had this sinking feeling. OK, I know my job here is just to talk to people, and this is -- this is not going to be easy, yet students came up to me. I had the same experience that Soledad did.
Just standing there with press tags on, students came up and they wanted to -- they wanted tell you their stories.
O'BRIEN: And it started to get later in the week, though -- I've got to tell you, Howie, it got a little bit crazier. For example, we were interviewing these Swedish students who had a DV cam and actually were shooting, taking pictures of Norris Hall when the gunfire erupted. They couldn't even believe it. They thought like everybody else it was construction.
And so I was doing an interview with them, and they said, "Please, we don't want to do any more interviews. Please, make it stop."
And at one point we had to take them and get them back to their car, which was about a quarter of a mile away, and they ran, ran -- literally ran. They were chased by other reporters, running across the field to try to get to their vehicle.
I mean, that I have never seen before in my entire life. That I have never seen.
KURTZ: Oh, no wonder the media have such a great reputation in these situations.
Now, a lot of questions have been asked, understandably, by reporters around the country and those at Blacksburg about what went on, how this happened.
Let's take a look at some of that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PIERRE THOMAS, ABC NEWS: The critical question tonight is, why did it take two hours to notify students there was a shooting on campus?
ALAN COLMES, FOX NEWS: Why was there a two-hour lapse in between shootings? Why weren't students notified earlier of the danger?
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: Why did campus police and school officials wait more than two hours after the first murders to warn students on that very campus that they were in danger, and to shut down the campus?
JOHN ROBERTS, CNN: With all of those signs, could something more have been done to stop Cho or get him off campus? Should something more have been done?
MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: Why wasn't Cho Seung-Hui put into a psychiatric hospital before he went on his rampage?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Sharyn Alfonsi, you know, of course, reporters have to ask questions, and anchors as well. But some people out there are saying, are journalists looking for someone to blame for the actions of a psychopath?
ALFONSI: I don't think so. I think they're legitimate questions, actually. Especially that two-hour gap.
We heard that from parents. Parents who came here to pick up their kids said, what was going on that they knew about this for two hours and my son or daughter was walking across campus?
I mean, these are questions that people want to know. I don't think anybody's looking for anyone to blame. I think they are just trying to understand how this unfolded. How was this able to happen? How was he able to have two hours where no one was looking for him and students didn't know?
KURTZ: On the other hand, Soledad O'Brien, it is awfully easy for journalists to second guess after something terrible happens and we're looking back at it with hindsight.
O'BRIEN: We certainly heard that from a lot of students, some of them who decided to stay who said, listen, you know, hindsight is 20/20. And these are valid questions. They would say that.
But to some degree it doesn't matter. Everybody acted to the best of their ability.
And to try to put the finger on blame -- some people said, "Listen, my grief is too immediate right now. I don't want to think about blame. I get you guys have to think about blame. I don't want to talk about blame. That's not what I'm thinking about right now."
KURTZ: What about these long profiles of Cho? There was one in "The New York Times" this morning. There was one in "The Washington Post" yesterday trying to understand his childhood and motivation.
Is this an exercise in futility, to some degree? The guy was crazy.
ROBINSON: Yes, the guy was crazy. And -- but I think we need to -- need to know.
You know, eventually there will be lessons that we can draw from this tragedy. It's too early. We have to get the facts now.
And I think one of the most salient facts or set of facts is his mental illness. You know, how was it -- when was it diagnosed? How was it treated, his interaction with campus police, with the state mental health apparatus.
He committed for a short time. We don't know how long. He was released.
How did that system work? Because there is a sense, I think, at least I have a sense that one of the things we're going to want to look at is college students at the age when serious mental problems often manifest themselves, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. You know, that happens, or that comes out in your young adulthood, and so...
KURTZ: But there are larger questions here to be asked, possibly some lessons to learn beyond just this one individual's twisted mind.
ROBINSON: Absolutely. How -- what is the responsibility of colleges? Do they need more leeway to be able to do their job, to, you know, inform parents, to compel students to go to counseling sessions? You know, and these are the kinds of questions I think we're going to look at.
KURTZ: Sharyn Alfonsi, as I've mentioned, you've been there in Blacksburg all week. Is sometimes ask a similar question to war correspondents in terms of the impact on them.
Do you find yourself getting depressed having to deal with this story for so many hours?
ALFONSI: I think you do. I think you do get a little depressed.
In fact, the other night we were all sitting at dinner, the crew, and everybody just kind of exhaled for the first moment. And it was -- it's been, you're working, you're working, you're kind of just trying to get the information out there, and then when you take a minute and you just reflect, that's when it hits you. And I think everybody here is tired.
I'll say this, though. The people in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech have handled themselves with such dignity that it's made our job so much easier.
They were feeding us at the alumni hall. I couldn't believe that. You know, in our effort to get out the story, and here where are being evasive (sic), and they are -- and they are -- invasive -- and they are right there, they're giving us food, they're giving us a place to work out of. And that's made it -- that's made it a lot easier. They seem to be just very sensitive to us as well, which just shows kind of an amazing compassion. KURTZ: Soledad, let me read you a provocative quote from "National Review's" Jonah Goldberg, who wrote, "Because there isn't enough new information to fill the infinite void allotted to these stories, the press quickly succumbs to a kind of emotional vampirism, feeding off the grief, fear, and anguish of victims."
What do you think?
O'BRIEN: You know, I disagree with the last part of it. I don't think that the press is there to feed off the grief of victims. I think the press is there to move the story forward. But you're talking about a news cycle, and a 24-hour, you know, void to fill. And so I understand that it seems receptive.
I remember during 9/11, when my nieces called and said, "Oh, my god, auntie, how many buildings were hit? We've been watching buildings fall all day."
And you understand, wow, it does look like hundreds of buildings were hit. And it's kind of the same thing I think for the people at Virginia Tech who feel like, enough, I'm being assaulted over and over again.
O'BRIEN: And yet, at the same time, they would say to me they understood we had a job to do. I mean, when the pictures of Cho first game out, the videotape that NBC News released, that was very painful. I felt a real palpable change from some of the public information officers that we were working with. That was very brutal for them.
But even when you would say, "Do you think the pictures shouldn't have been run?" They'd so, "No, I understand. They have to run. It's just -- it is so painful for us to have to sit through it."
KURTZ: I understand that.
Gene Robinson, coming back to the question of the personal impact, it's hard, perhaps impossible, for even the most battle- scarred journalist not to react as a human being, as a parent. Would you agree, having been there?
ROBINSON: Yes, I do. You know, I'm a parent. I have one son who graduated from college a couple years ago, another one who is about to, you know, enter college in a year or so.
And you drop your kid off at college with the expectation that they'll be safe. But with this -- this worry and, you know, he's leaving home for the first time, it's really tough. It was tough for me.
KURTZ: And that is why this has struck a chord in everybody.
Gene Robinson, Soledad O'Brien, Sharyn Alfonsi, thanks for joining us.
And you can watch Soledad's Special Investigations Unit report, "Massacre at Virginia Tech," tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on CNN.
Still to come, how cell phones and new technology transformed the coverage at Virginia Tech. Two top bloggers weigh in after the break.
KURTZ: A few short years ago, when big news broke, big media dominated. And if you weren't big, you didn't make the cut. But the Virginia Tech tragedy reminded us about how ordinary folks who don't have press passes can contribute to the coverage and how major news outlets are adapting to this digital world.
Joining us now to talk about all this, Mary Katharine Ham, who blogs at townhall.com. And in New York, Jeff Jarvis, veteran television critic and editor who blogs at buzzmachine.com.
Jeff Jarvis, the first pictures from Virginia Tech came not from news organizations, as you know, but from a Virginia Tech student's cell phone camera. This was purchased by CNN. It was downloaded about two million times on the CNN Web site.
So, has the age of citizen journalism now fully arrived?
JEFF JARVIS, BUZZMACHINE.COM: Oh, absolutely. It's been here longer than perhaps we know. And I think that this is only the beginning of yet more change.
Imagine, Howie, if that cell phone had been broadcasting live, as technology now allows through ustream.tv. We would have seen the action as it happened.
Also, it's a new architecture of news and media here. The people on the campus, of course, were using media to inform each other, not necessarily the world, but their friends and family what was going on. And we got to eavesdrop on that. And we thus learned what was happening on the campus in ways far better than reporters could do when they were rushing down to the campus.
KURTZ: Speaking of informing each other, Facebook, the social networking site that primarily consists of college students and recent college graduates, people communicate through that. But journalists tapped into this and were using the site to track down victim's friends and using -- but in some cases, using information and pictures from the site. And that prompted a complaint from Facebook.
What do you think about that situation?
MARY KATHARINE HAM, TOWNHALL.COM: Well, I think on one hand, it was an opportunity for the people who are watching this tragedy to get to know these kids who were victims. And I think that was an exciting opportunity to get to know them firsthand, and to get to know them quickly because of the focus that's been put on the killer.
On the other hand, you have to be very sensitive. And I think a lot of these college kids were surprised that essentially they are living their private lives in public when they are using Facebook. KURTZ: Just to explain, people can't see your pictures and your profile on Facebook unless you give them permission through another registered user. But obviously journalists have found ways around that.
HAM: That's true. And they also were starting groups on Facebook which is -- by which reporters can get entirely around that, because the groups are entirely open to anyone.
And on MySpace, it's much less common for people to make their profiles private. It's actually a choice you have to make. So, a lot of those were open from the very beginning.
KURTZ: Was this an invasion of privacy, Jeff Jarvis?
JARVIS: No, I don't think so, Howie. I think that we live public lives on the Web now. And if you don't want to be seen by the world, or by your friends and neighbors, you're not going to put it on the Web.
So I think it's a bit of an overblown issue. We tend to overuse the word "privacy" these days.
People who have published to the Web, they publish to the world. The rest of the world wants to know what's going on. And I think there's a benefit to news here, because we get more first-hand views of events than we get through the filter of a reporter.
You look at the night of the tragedy, when Larry King had on the students. You can find those students because you knew they were there because of their Facebook pages. And frankly, I would far rather have heard from them than Dr. Phil.
HAM: Yes. I was just going to add as well that I think one of the friends of Emily Hilscher actually used her Facebook group page to say Emily Hilscher was not involved with the shooter, because she was angered by the fact that this link was being made. And now it may or may not be true that they were linked, but I thought it was interesting to tell the media, back off, they were not engaged in a relationship.
KURTZ: Why did some people think there was a link?
HAM: Early on they thought there was a link because she was the first one killed. That it may have been a domestic dispute.
KURTZ: I see. I see.
HAM: And her friend used that to debunk that rumor.
KURTZ: All right.
Jeff Jarvis, NBC, as we've discussed earlier in the program, you know, take taken a lot of heat for airing the Cho video. And it certainly shows you that anybody, even a crazy killer, can make a video. But if a major network hadn't put it on in this particular instance, nobody would have seen it.
JARVIS: Well, Howie, it could just have well gone on to YouTube or on to his own server. And I actually think -- having thought about this, I disagree with most of your guests this morning.
I think that NBC didn't go far enough. That these tapes showed, we are told, such a deranged person who was allowed out by the authorities. We need to see this, because we need to know what's going on.
Is it journalism's job to make the world look safe, or is it journalism's job to give us the uncomfortable truths? I would argue the latter.
KURTZ: But you disagree not only with some of the earlier guests on this program, you disagree with a lot of people out there who, as you well know, very angry about not just with NBC, but all of the networks putting this on, constantly playing it for the first 24 hours. Those folks were offended.
JARVIS: Constantly is one issue. I don't think it should be looped and made into entertainment. They could be put online and not even on the air.
But should we see this? Because we need a debate in this country about our mental health and privacy laws that allowed this to happen. And unless we get shocked sufficiently by what was there -- he was obviously deranged, and yet he was allowed to go on campus. His parents were not told under the law.
This is the great tragedy and scandal of this...
KURTZ: All right.
JARVIS: ... and this material would help that debate, I think.
HAM: Well, I hate not to disagree vehemently with Jeff, but I think that NBC had to air the video, at least in parts. I think it could have been done more sensitively, maybe waited a little while before they did it.
That's my concern. I'm not -- I'm not as enraged as my colleague Hugh is, but I think it could have been done more sensitively, for sure.
KURTZ: So, what would have constituted more sensitively?
HAM: I think waiting, giving some time, letting the police look at the materials more thoroughly before they went straight to bat on the night that they got the material would have helped. And giving some families some time to have their funeral service before this guy was the center of everyone's attention.
KURTZ: Well, in fairness, Jeff Jarvis, the Virginia State Police gave NBC the go-ahead to do this when they did it on Wednesday night. They didn't tell them to do it. They just said it's their editorial decision.
Would waiting a day have made a difference? And aren't journalists supposed to put news on the air and in print as soon as they get it?
JARVIS: I think we're struggling to find some safe ground that makes this less painful. It is painful. News is painful.
I grew up watching the Vietnam War on television, and it was painful to watch. But it had an impact on public debate. So will the coverage of Iraq now, so will the coverage of this.
It is journalism's job to give us the uncomfortable truths. And they're not going to be liked for that, and that's difficult when you're in the ratings business, but I think that that's their job.
KURTZ: All right. All right.
Jeff Jarvis, Mary Katharine Ham, thanks for your insights this morning.
When we come back, my media report card on the coverage of a tragedy.
And if you missed any of today's show, you can download a video podcast by going to CNN.com/podcast.
KURTZ: When I was a young reporter, I drew an awful assignment after a bomb blew up a Pan Am jumbo jet over Scotland. I had to call family members of the victims on board.
Some, of course, were too overcome to talk. Others were willing to be interviewed about their son or daughter or mother or father. In fact, seemed eager to talk about their loved one so that person would be remembered.
It was cathartic, I realized, for them to share their memories with someone who might record them in those days before blogs and Web sites.
KURTZ (voice over): When the media invaded Blacksburg, Virginia, this week, Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Diane Sawyer, Harry Smith, John Roberts, Kiran Chetry, Anderson Cooper, Shepard Smith, Greta Van Susteren and the rest, it was a chance for the Virginia Tech community to share their grief with the country. The danger, of course, is that a small town might feel overwhelmed by the media invasion, but everything I saw suggested that those parachuting in were conducting themselves with sensitivity and dignity, words not always associated with the news business.
There was very little of the hype and sensationalism that we've seen in so many crime stories, from Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, to the Duke rape debacle.
KURTZ: Those were local cases that television pumped up to create a national drama, but the magnitude of the Virginia Tech tragedy was so great, so hard to imagine, so difficult to grasp, that anchors and reporters had only to gather the facts as best they could.
We point out the media's excesses on this program because that is our mandate. And in all honesty, there's plenty to criticize. This week, our critical lens finds that the press did a good job in a difficult situation, helping to bring the country together instead of staging shouting matches over what divides us, taking a small first step toward the healing process after the pain of what happened in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com