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Descending Into Hell

On Wednesday, we received a parcel from a mass murderer. The simple act of opening it and examining its contents thrust us into a role we did not seek and did not want.
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On Wednesday, we received a parcel from a mass murderer. The simple act of opening it and examining its contents thrust us into a role we did not seek and did not want. Our first step was to call law enforcement and hand over the originals. Next, we decided what of it we could air as a news organization. I do not know of a reputable news organization that would have stopped after that first step ... and put the contents into a drawer. We chose to air but a small portion of the sociopathic rants, writings and recordings of a murderer. It was shocking material ... beyond disturbing. However unpleasant it might have been for us all to watch, we are journalists and it was inarguably a huge news development. In consultation with law enforcement, and with all of our senior and standards executives and producers present, we then set about heavily editing some of the material -- enough to convey the mindset of the troubled gunman.

As Wednesday evening wore on, the photos we aired started re-airing as "video wallpaper" on all the cable news networks, our own included. That sort of use has since stopped. NBC chose Nightly News as the venue to reveal the information because it was the next major network news broadcast (it was 7.5 hours from the time the envelope entered our building to Nightly airtime) in our schedule, and because we wanted strict editorial control over content and for matters of taste. As soon as I was told of the envelope and its contents I asked Pete Williams to come to New York from Washington ... so that he could see it all, read it all, and help us package it into a highly-edited, watchable form. At each step during the process, we talked about the possibility that the material would be seen by the families who have suffered the ultimate loss. They have not left our thoughts and prayers since the moment we learned of this awful event. Many of us involved in Wednesday's decision-making are parents of college-age children ourselves.

In the future, we will only use brief portions of the material as necessary to illustrate developments in the story.

A critical piece of information in a huge national news story was dropped on our doorstep. While I love my work, our task Wednesday was extremely unpleasant. Wednesday was an awful day. There was no joy in this for any of us. To the contrary: opening each computer video snippet for the first time was a sickening and harrowing experience -- and it's good to know that the worst of them -- all now in the hands of investigators -- will never see the light of day. As I said on the air Wednesday evening: we are aware that this puts words in the mouth of a murderer. We are also aware that this danger, represented by this sick young man, lives among us ... and lives on our campuses and in our schools with our children ... and to see it and hear it is to understand the consequences. We are fellow citizens, parents and television viewers -- we understand why families are upset -- and this continues to be an awful chapter in American life.


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