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Does Press Sacrifice Public Safety for Scoops?

Aired October 12, 2002 - 18:30   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So I beg of the media, let us do our job.


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The sniper backlash. A Maryland police chief rips the media for reporting on the taunting Tarot card left behind by the serial sniper. Is the press sacrificing public safety for scoops, or are the police more interested in news conferences than sharing information?

Also, Andy Rooney commits a personal foul against women on the sidelines.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Coming up, we'll talk to our guests including CNN's Bill Hemmer in Montgomery County and Gordon Peterson, the anchor at Washington's WUSA TV, the station that came under attack from police this week. The so-called "Beltway sniper" has dominated news coverage, print and broadcast, not just here in the Washington area, but around the world. But is the round-the-clock media coverage helpful or hurtful to law enforcement's efforts to crack this case?

Earlier this week, Washington's Channel 9 broke the story of the Tarot card left at a Maryland school where a teenager was shot. "The Washington Post" quickly followed up prompting Montgomery County Maryland Police Chief Charles Moose to blast the leakers and the media.


CHIEF CHARLES MOOSE, MONTGOMERY CO. POLICE: I have not received any message that the citizens of Montgomery County want Channel 9 or "The Washington Post" or any other media outlet to solve this case. If they do, then let me know. We will go and do other police work, and we will turn this case over to the media, and you can solve it. But to date, the people in my community have asked the police department to work the case.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Gordon Peterson, news anchor at Washington's Channel 9 WUSA-TV; Marc Fisher, columnist for "The Washington Post"; Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. And in Montgomery County, Maryland in front of police headquarters CNN's Bill Hemmer.

Gordon Peterson, we just heard once again Chief Moose ripping into your station. What was your reaction when you heard those charges for the first time?

GORDON PETERSON, WUSA-TV ANCHOR: My reaction was I think the chief needs a nap. I mean I think he's exhausted and I actually have some sympathy for his position here. But in terms of what we did, what we put on the air, we're very comfortable with it.

KURTZ: But of course he argued that the media in general, Channel 9 in particular, might be hurting the investigation by putting out details like this Tarot card that the cops wanted to hold back.

PETERSON: Well, our reporter, Mike Buchanan, who has been doing this for a long time has unimpeachable and exhaustive sources in law enforcement. That's where the story came from.

KURTZ: That means somebody wanted it out.

PETERSON: Of course.


PETERSON: A couple of hours before airtime, he ran it past the jurisdiction it involves, said you know the chief ought to know about this. We have no comment on the evidence that was picked up at the scene.

KURTZ: No requests. Please don't put this on the air.

PETERSON: Don't put it on...

KURTZ: Please hold this back.

PETERSON: ... investigation and so forth. In fact, Buchanan sources -- there was more on this card than we reported -- his sources said why don't you sit on this part of it for a while? It will help us in terms of identifying this guy down the road, perhaps.

KURTZ: So you did partially withhold...


KURTZ: ... part of the message...

PETERSON: ... sure, at the request of...

KURTZ: ... at the request of...

PETERSON: ... his sources within law enforcement.

KURTZ: OK. Marc Fisher, what was Moose doing picking a fight with people who carried TV cameras around him by the barrel? MARC FISHER, THE WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: Well, any number of possibilities. It could be that he was exhausted and frustrated and simply didn't know that this was going to be released and felt double- crossed. It could be that this is a classic case in which a government authority is leaking on the one hand and denouncing the leak with the other hand, which is fairly common practice. And it could be a combination of the two. It could also be a reflection of a disagreement, where you have some police officials who are working the case who think it's essential to get this information out because it could trigger someone's memory and produce the tip they need to break this case wide open, while other police authorities want to hold it back.

KURTZ: Right. Of course, the chief did back off somewhat on his comments about his media the next day. Bill Hemmer, you're out there on the scene. You have been for days. Do you sense any resentment toward the media, either by police officials or just members of the public that you're coming in contact with?

BILL HEMMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, quite interesting, Howard, just an hour ago we were given another admonishment from the chief. He came out here essentially, releasing this composite, this photograph composite of this truck that he wants people on the lookout for, called together by a number of eyewitness accounts. He also said at the end of that briefing that apparently some reporters in some areas for some news organizations have been out tracking down investigators as they go to witness homes, and he warned them to stay away because they might sacrifice the investigation.

I think the bottom line here, Howard, is this. There is a symbiotic relationship -- you know this as well as anybody -- for decades now, where the police have worked in concert with the media. They use us to get information out and often times we use them to get the information for our viewers or our listeners or our readers. When that relationship is sacrificed, you got a problem there because you cannot butt heads on this. I'll give you a great example. Yesterday afternoon, the 911 number throughout the Montgomery County area is being flooded with people calling in with tips. They were supposed to call the 888 number. Instead, they were calling 911 and tying up a number of lines. A couple of police folks came out here and said please let your viewers know...

KURTZ: Right.

HEMMER: ... to make the distinction between these two numbers. So there again, you have that relationship comes into play.


HEMMER: It works the best...

KURTZ: ... journalists are useful.

HEMMER: Indeed you're right, yes.

KURTZ: Bob Lichter, in these kinds of battles, my sense would be that the public would probably side with law enforcement and not the press.

BOB LICHTER, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND PUBIC AFFAIRS: Well, it sounds like in this case the problem was really a disagreement or a misunderstanding, perhaps, within the bureaucracy at Channel 9, saying they thought they did have a green light. But in responding -- I've seen quoted in "The Washington Post" and elsewhere, a lot of reporters have gone beyond that and said it doesn't matter whether they want to or not, we as reporters represent a community also, should get something out if we think it's in the public interest. I think that's the kind of "we report", "we decide" mentality that make a lot of people critical of what they see as an arrogant media.

PETERSON: Well, "The Washington Post" or Channel 9 are not adjuncts of the Montgomery County Police Department or the Prince George's County Police Department. We are independent, and we do make judgment calls on our own. Pentagon papers would be a case in point. A lot of people were upset about that too.

KURTZ: And all kinds of national security fights with the Pentagon where the media judgment is not always the same as those with positions...

FISHER: But this...

KURTZ: ... of authorities.

FISHER: ... this was a classic case of that brought out that cultural divide those of us in the news media and people who consume our products. Where we thought that this was a great example of aggressive reporting, a lot of people praising Channel 9 and "The Post" from within the industry for breaking the story about the Tarot card, while the readers and viewers were overwhelmingly on the other side saying that you have an obligation at this time to be supportive, to wrap your arms around the chief, and if he's upset and he's not doing well, well he's a nice guy, and he's trying real hard, and he's working long hours, and it's your job to support him for the benefit of the community.

KURTZ: You've been on the air a lot live this week, Gordon Peterson, seven hours one particular day...


KURTZ: ... you know information is coming in, reports of more people being shot. Is it hard to function in that environment and are you conscious about not scaring people, not scaring the viewers...


KURTZ: ... in a already tense situation.

PETERSON: You're always conscious of -- first of all you want to get the right information out. You're always on guard against a boom scoop. But we have some very experienced people out there. This is not the only story we've broken. Gary Reals, another one of our experienced reporters has broken a number of stories, and I'll tell you right now, there are more to come, and they'll probably upset Chief Moose, but I mean we can't worry about that. In -- but in terms of being responsible, you look at the sources. If they are reliable sources, you go with them. You give it due consideration with the management of your organization, and you go with the story.

FISHER: You want to be assuring and useful to the public and give them the information they need. But you also have an obligation to be aggressive and to say what is this investigation costing, which is a piece we did today, which is very unpopular with readers and what methods are they using? Are these the right methods?

KURTZ: Bill Hemmer...


KURTZ: ... excuse me, Bill Hemmer, you're sitting out there and again information is coming in. I was watching yesterday afternoon. CNN had the "breaking news" logo, said reports of a shooting at a school in Bowie, Maryland. It turned out to be based on a phone call. It wasn't true. So sometimes you can be -- not you personally, but the network or all the networks can be a little quick to go with unconfirmed reports.

HEMMER: I think that's a great point, Howard. In fact, we heard about 15 minutes after that report went out on the air, parents were flocking to that school, trying to get their kids. It turned out to be not true at all. I think that goes to the heart of this story, though, about how complex it's been, how complicated it's been, how little facts that anyone's been given over the past 10 days, now almost a week and a half old.

And I think the other point about all this stuff, and I heard you guys talking there, it may be and Gordon, you can answer this better than anyone else can right now. It may be that the police source that you had wanted that Tarot card information out to the public where other people disagreed with that, but this investigator perhaps is thinking, you know what? If we put that out to the public, perhaps it jogs the memory of some person living in the community, who says you know what? I know a guy who dabbles in Tarot cards and perhaps he could be considered a suspect.

PETERSON: And his brother has long guns, you know, I mean, that's...

KURTZ: That's what we're hoping for.


KURTZ: You wanted to jump in, Bob Lichter.

LICHTER: Yes, I think sure, this could be useful. That's a call for the police to make. I hear Marc saying the public doesn't really like this. They side with the police, but we have an obligation to the public to report the way the public says they don't want reported. And I think there's a real disconnect here. It is two cultures, when I'm hearing one culture say well it's our job -- I'm not saying criticize the authorities, but don't take their place.

KURTZ: Yes...

PETERSON: Well, there are people out there who are offended when we say good evening. You know, Howie said "good evening" and 14 people picked up the phone. I mean, that's just the way it is...

KURTZ: And obviously...

PETERSON: ... you can't please everybody.

KURTZ: ... obviously police chiefs and politicians are certainly drawn to the cameras in these situations because it's, you know, "face" time for them, and they can appear to be leaders in a crisis. Now on "The Washington Post" letter's page today, Marc Fisher, you're not the most popular fellow, responded to a comment you wrote. One letter writer said you were taking petty pot shots at the Montgomery County Police chief.

"While Fisher sits in a comfortable office pounding out his critical opinion and dredging up incidents long past, Moose is dealing with the fact that a crazed madman is gunning down the citizens he swore to protect. He has a right to be angry."

FISHER: Well, he may have a right to be angry, but he doesn't have a right to use the time that he has on the air to get essential information across to the public, to use that time for his own little tirades. And he doesn't have the right to do this again and again -- and, you know, he's speaking to several audiences. He's out there talking to the public, trying to assure everyone that this investigation is on track. He's also speaking directly to the killer, and so he has to temper what he's saying and mold it to address the killer directly. And when he goes out there and has a little petulant tirade and also attacks the press and sends mixed messages, I think he's doing himself a disservice.

KURTZ: Bill Hemmer, you reported last year from Kandahar during the war in Afghanistan, now you're in a place, Rockville, most people wouldn't think of as a war zone, but unfortunately it's become that way. What do you gain -- what do any of the reporters gain by being out there on the scene? Are you able to do much reporting, or is it really, you know, pretty backdrops, everybody sees that we're alive and we're on the case.

HEMMER: I think it's invaluable to be here, Howard. The appreciation and your understanding for the story is so enhanced by having a physical presence, being able to talk to the people who are working the story on the police side, and in addition to that, Howard, just being able to see the scenes where the shootings and the killings have taken place. I've commented many times the past five days about how remarkably busy a number of these places, where people have died, has been here in Montgomery County.

There's a lot of traffic and those intersections are extremely busy, which goes to the point and to the question how confounding the search has been. This guy killed a man yesterday morning at 9:30 a.m. in broad daylight. There was a police officer 50 yards away. There was a police barracks a quarter of a mile away. The state of Virginia had already gotten on the conference call the day before, put their plan of action into action, they shut off the interstate within seven minutes, and yet he still got away and alluded the dragnet.

KURTZ: Isn't it frustrating...


KURTZ: ... isn't it frustrating (UNINTELLIGIBLE) reason to be on the air and sometimes hours go by and there's no hard information about...


PETERSON: You find yourself talking about the white van endlessly, and there's no sure -- you know there's no assurance that the white van had anything to do with this. Let me say something about the relationship with the police though. The criticism over the years of the press has been that they're too cozy with the cops.

KURTZ: Right.

PETERSON: Most of us like cops and most cops get along well with us...


KURTZ: But there are times of tension.

PETERSON: Yes, there are times of tension, but over the years, Mike Buchanan has reported for the -- broke the story that John Hinckley shot President Reagan because he thought he was in love with Jodie Foster. He reported for the first time -- he broke the story that Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball star was drafted by the Celtics, did not die from some youthful problem with his heart. He died from a cocaine overdose...

KURTZ: And he's able to do all of this because of the relationship...

PETERSON: Relationships with the police...

KURTZ: Right.

PETERSON: He reported more recently that Gary Condit in the Chandra Levy story, two to three hours before the police were to search his apartment was seen dropping a box, which apparently it contained a woman's watch in the trash in Alexandria and most people who live in Dupont Circle don't drop their trash over in Alexandria -- all of this based on his relationship with the police over the years.

KURTZ: Obviously, it can be a symbiotic relationship. Just briefly, Bob Lichter, does the public in a time of tension such as we have here in the Washington area right now, benefit at all or grateful at all to the media for trying to get out what information they can, or is it mostly resentment?

LICHTER: It's resentment when you have a specific case like this, where the police chief says the media did something wrong. I think in general people welcome or very active media people want information. That's why you have three 24-hour news cable channels...

KURTZ: Right.


KURTZ: We will leave it there and we'll come back and do the 24- hour thing. And when we come back, all those detectives and profilers and other experts on the air, are they doing any good, or are they just part of this latest media frenzy?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. I have heard in the last 24 hours, people say on TV that the sniper is young, a loser, short, a videogame fanatic, a Vietnam veteran, maybe, linked to al Qaeda, maybe, or two people. Let's take a look at what Chief Charles Moose had to say about all these experts giving their views on the air on this case.


MOOSE: If they are putting people in this community at risk so that they can have the pleasure of being on TV, it is so sad. What I'm saying is an absolute ego problem. They're no longer anybody. But they do have their media in America that all of a sudden makes them somebody again. I plea with the networks, I plea with all of you to think about the value of the interviews, the value of the airtime that you're giving them.


KURTZ: Bill Hemmer in Montgomery County, isn't CNN, like the other networks, putting an awful lot of folks on the air, law enforcement types, profilers, psychologists, who to some degree are speculating about this case?

HEMMER: Speculating to a great deal. We mentioned before, Howard, we have so few facts on this story and so long as we're in the area of speculation, we've also tried to consider what is it that the chief is trying to communicate, possibly to the killer, Marc mentioned just a couple of minutes ago. There's an active theory out here and so long as we're discussing this, everyone wants to figure it out, for crying out loud, because it's a very frustrating thing, because we do not have many facts. It's possible that the chief on Wednesday lashed out at the media because he's actually trying to communicate with the killer.

There was a report that came out earlier in the week that the killer left a note saying don't relay the Tarot card to the media. Well it happened. Is it possible in the long list of possibilities that the chief is trying to tell the killer it was not my doing. It was not my responsibility. I respect the wishes you had. Please keep open the line of communication so we can establish this relationship. Sure that's a possibility, but again, every person who's come on the air has had to speculate about what he or she thinks may be at work here.

KURTZ: Right.

HEMMER: I don't even know if I've got any idea of what I just said is fact or not, but again, it's a possibility because we know very, very little.

KURTZ: At least you properly labeled it. Now everyone's got an opinion and a theory on this, Gordon Peterson, but does that mean that it's responsible for the media to give airtime to all those people for all that speculation?

PETERSON: Well, first of all, I don't have to tell CNN what a hungry beast this is, and it has to be fed, in your case, 24 hours a day. However, I mean if you're talking to a ballistics expert about the .223 round, it makes sense, I think. If you're talking to a profiler, I think that makes sense. I mean it -- people are trying to pull it together in their own minds. I had breakfast with a bunch of guys this morning, each of whom had a different theory. The white van is a decoy. There are two snipers. There are two people in the -- you know. Everybody's got a theory, as Bill said.

KURTZ: Does this remind you, Bob Lichter, at all of the Chandra Levy case, another high-profile criminal investigation where very little information, lots of speculation, sound a bit irresponsible?

LICHTER: Yes, this is one of those cases where the media gets all dressed up with no place to go. It's the story...


LICHTER: ... you've got to cover it, except there's nothing to say about it and so, you speculate. You bring in "experts" -- quote -- unquote -- who don't really know anything and are just -- are just going out into the ether. So I think in a way it's no worse than people talking to a neighbor over the backyard fence.


KURTZ: And print does it too, Marc Fisher.

FISHER: Well, absolutely we do, but I think it's all a matter of how you do it. I think -- I side with the chief on this. I think I've seen way too many experts on the air and in print, who are giving answers when there are no answers. Our job is to get those folks to ask questions, and it's a stylistic difference, but it's an important one in what the listener perceives because folks out there, if they see that you're saying definitively well this guy's young and he had this...

KURTZ: And he must have served in Vietnam. I mean...


FISHER: And I've heard numerous people say that...

KURTZ: Yes. Right.

FISHER: And they don't know -- and they don't know.


FISHER: They have no concept.

KURTZ: Right.

FISHER: They have no concept. And so what you need to do is to ask the questions that get the expertise that these people have about the possibilities in a very clear way that it's clearly questioning and not giving answers.

PETERSON: I was a bit taken aback when the governor of Maryland and the mayor of the state of Washington, D.C. called the guy a coward.


KURTZ: Parris Glendening.

PETERSON: It seems to me that they were taunting this guy and you begin to wonder about that...

KURTZ: How can you not -- we only have a few seconds. How can you not put that on the air? It's the governor of Maryland.

PETERSON: You have to put it on the air.

FISHER: But I've seen experts say that that's the right thing to do and experts say that's the wrong thing to do.

KURTZ: That's why they're experts...


KURTZ: ... a variety of opinions, and we will have to leave it there. Bill Hemmer in Rockville, Marc Fisher, Gordon Peterson, Bob Lichter, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, Andy Rooney sidelines female sports reporters and Fidel Castro chats it with up with Barbara Walters. That's all next on "Media Notes".


KURTZ: Now for our look at the ups and downs in the media world this past week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ (voice-over): It was a bad week for Andy Rooney, the "60 Minutes" curmudgeon venturing into foul territory with these comments on the MSG Sports network.

ANDY ROONEY, CBS COMMENTATOR: Those damn women they have down on the sideline who don't know what the hell they're talking about. I mean, I'm not a sexist person, but a woman has no business being down there trying to make some comment about a football game.

KURTZ: And Rooney has no business stereotyping a whole group of journalists -- unsportsmanlike conduct, 10 yards.

It was a good week for Barbara Walters, who landed an exclusive "20/20" interview with Fidel Castro. And a not so good week for Matt Lauer and the "Today" show, which canceled a Cuba trip after the maximum leader reneged on an NBC interview.


KURTZ: And it was a rough week for CBS, NBC and ABC, which drew barbs for bypassing President Bush's Monday speech on Iraq in favor of such programs as "Fear Factor." But Fox carried the speech after convincing baseball officials to push back a playoff game.

And a bad week for Dick Armey, who was pushing a measure to force the parent company of the "Dallas Morning News" to sell one of its TV stations. The House majority leader, it turns out, had accused the media company of conducting an outrageous vendetta against his son in covering his losing campaign for a judgeship. I guess a nasty letter to the editor wouldn't have been enough.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


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