Over at the Huntington Post, Jason Linkins praises the edict of NBC News chief Steve Capus to curb network Olympic coverage use of the video showing Nodar Kumaritashvili’s fatal luge run. “I’m glad this decision has been reached,” Linkins writes. “The video of Kumaritashvili’s fatal luge run is difficult to watch and I do not recommend that you do so. …Here’s hoping Steve Capus will remember having made this choice come September and break with MSNBC’s grim and pointless tradition of replaying the events of September 11, 2001 in real time.”
Linkins presumably regards Capus’s decision as “responsible broadcasting.” My question is, “What’s responsible about it?” The video should be banned because Jason finds it “difficult to watch”? Don’t watch it, then. I don’t think it is possible to understand the accident without seeing the video, and responsible broadcast journalism involves using the available information technology to clarify whatever is being discussed. The accident itself is less frightening to watch than the hapless skier whose violent tumble used to begin ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Is the luge accident inappropriate to show because the luge athlete died and the “agony of defeat” skier did not? What standard is that, exactly…the “unethical to show it if people died” standard?
No, it can’t be that. Nobody seems to blanch at showing the film of the Hindenburg going down, or the atom bomb being exploding over Hiroshima, as these film records help tell important historical stories. Yet Linkins says showing the 9-11 video is “pointless.” All right, maybe the proposed rule is “Don’t engage in repeated showings of video of recent events that result in the death of one or more people.” But again, why? What is ethically wrong with it?
Is it unkind to the people involved, or their families? That has never been a journalistic standard when real news is involved, nor should it be. Is it too upsetting for the audience? As a Red Sox fan, I can tell you that watching the ball roll through Bill Buckner’s legs over and over gave me more psychic pain that the video of many objectively worse tragedies. Mets fans find the film positively edifying, so they watch it, and I don’t. Is the luge accident too graphic or bloody? The 9-11 footage isn’t either graphic or bloody, and Kumaritashvili’s death is G-Rated compared to, for example, the gory Zapruder film of JKF’s assassination. Gory, but essential: it is impossible to understand the assassination without seeing the film. Would Capus ban that too? What else isn’t NBC showing us?
If Linkens’ only wants to be sure that videos of tragedies get shown when there is a legitimate news, historical or educational purpose, I’m with him all the way. Banning a video because it’s “hard to watch,” however, is a form of voluntary censorship, by people—network executives—that we have good reason not to trust. Maybe Capus’s decision has nothing to do with his audience’s sensitivities, and everything to do with misrepresenting the Games as safe family fare, when in fact serious injury and death is always a real possibility. I wouldn’t rule it out.
I think responsible journalism must err on the side of showing too much, rather than too little. That means that Kumaritashvili’s tragic death, the planes hitting the Twin Towers, Zapruder’s movie, “Oh, the humanity!” and yes, Mookie’s damn grounder should be shown on TV any time they are relevant.
No matter how hard they are to watch.