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Is Press Covering Sniper Story Responsibly?

Aired October 19, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.
We're here in Rockville, Maryland, which for the moment is the epicenter of the media universe.


KURTZ (voice-over): You've seen the backdrop over and over again this week. Reporters and camera crews from around the world doing their stand-ups, their updates, their breaking news reports on a story on which there has been little breaking news, at least since the 11th shooting on Monday.

You've seen Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose answering questions, or more often, not answering questions from the assembled media mob. For all of the networks, for all the newspapers, this is ground zero for sniper coverage.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from New York, Michael Wolff, media columnist for "New York" Magazine; in Atlanta, Laura Ingraham, host of "The Laura Ingraham Show" on Westwood One Radio; and here with me in Montgomery County, Steve Roberts, syndicated columnist and professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Laura Ingraham, let me start with you. This is a dramatic life and death story involving a sniper that we obviously have to cover, but has it turned into a television industry with logos and theme music and round-the-clock blather?

LAURA INGRAHAM, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: Yes, instead of suspending hunting in Montgomery County, Maryland, I think we should be suspending some of the press conferences and the media coverage from the cable networks. I mean, Howard, the cable networks love this. I mean, they don't love for people to get hurt, but they love the fact that there's a story, there's a hunt, there's a bad guy. We have all these sort of tangent figures, but it's really gotten beyond the pale. There's no news. There's been no news for days, except, as you said, when the chief comes out and says what he cannot tell us, and at this point, it's just -- it's saturation beyond saturation.

KURTZ: Steve Roberts, Laura Ingraham makes the point that this is good for cable and that the ratings are up. But people, the journalists who live here in the community, who have to get gas at gas stations or have kids in schools, we're edgy. We're nervous, and is that influencing the tone of the coverage?

STEVE ROBERTS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: I think it is. You've had columnists like Bill Safire, who lives in Montgomery County saying I'm afraid to walk my dog. Tom Friedman, who lives in Montgomery County of "The New York Times" saying I ducked behind a pillar when I was filling my gas tank...

KURTZ: What about Steve Roberts, who lives in Montgomery County?

ROBERTS: Steve Roberts lives in Montgomery County, and I had a friend whose babysitter and child were right at the gas station when one of the first shootings took place. They saw the woman fall. That's how close they were. So yes, when we get -- we're personally involved, it does raise the level of attention, no doubt about it.

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, it seems to me that this is a story with maximum interest, but minimum information. There were very few facts available, leaving this great void for television, newspapers and magazines to fill.

MICHAEL WOLFF, MEDIA COLUMNIST, NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Well, you know I think the -- maybe the larger question is this whole story, is this whole event really about the media coverage itself? Is the sniper, whoever it is, rushing home to watch all this on television? Is actually what's going on here, is this person, who is not only killing people, but in essence haunting the media. So, have we -- have we...


KURTZ: But we have no way of knowing that.

WOLFF: ... in some level gotten into bed with this?

KURTZ: We have no way of knowing who the sniper is and whether the media coverage is a factor in his thinking or not.

WOLFF: Well, we don't have any way of knowing that, but we can -- we can certainly begin to make some reasonable deductions. Why else would you engage in this kind of thing? What else -- what's the feedback? What do you get out of this? If you don't know the people, there's no rhyme; there's no reason. What is the thing -- the thing that connects everything here, and that's the media coverage.

KURTZ: Let me turn to an e-mail that we got after last week's show. Will from New York writes, "Can you picture him at a television, realizing the entire world is watching his sickening work in that -- in his opinion makes him equal to God. The more we broadcast his work, the more we pump up his ego and the more he kills. Can we tone down this horrible news just a little bit?"

Laura Ingraham, what do you make of this notion that the media are at least partially the blame, or we're fueling this, and we're goading the sniper? I'm a little skeptical because I don't know if it's true or not. INGRAHAM: Well, I think, Howie, the media sells fear in this story. I mean, the chances of getting hit by the sniper, I don't know what exactly they are, but I think you have a greater chance of getting hit by a car or getting killed by -- in a regular murder in the Washington, D.C. area. And so people are canceling the sporting events. Their kids are afraid to go outside, and why are they? Because of the real nature of the threat or because the media keeps repeating it, repeating it, and repeating it, so it becomes ingrained in our consciousness. So...


KURTZ: Are you saying that...

INGRAHAM: ... I've got to say that we have...

KURTZ: ... the press is...


KURTZ: Are you saying, Laura, that...


KURTZ: ... the press is deliberating selling fear, that that's part of the marketing here?

INGRAHAM: I think it is part of the marketing. I mean, it's sort of sad to say, but I think you know to say that we're cowering in our houses would not be an overstatement after watching some of the coverage. I mean life goes on. We have a bombing in Bali we should be talking about, Philippines bombing, a Moscow bombing, and that really does get pushed to the back seat as this sniper coverage with very little news continues to dominate 24/7.

KURTZ: I'm not sure it's...

WOLFF: But, Howie...

KURTZ: Let me just turn to Steve Roberts briefly, Michael Wolff. I saw a poll in "Newsweek" this week that said people around the country in states thousands of miles from Maryland and Virginia, they were worried about snipers in their backyard. That would seem to suggest that the media are, in fact, scaring people.

ROBERTS: I think the media is scaring people, and I think some of the incentive is the obvious fact that ratings do spike up when you have a story like this. I think of them as the one-word stories, Howie -- O.J., Elian, Diana, JonBenet, and this one is Sniper. It's someone -- in the same way, we don't have a name. We don't have a face, but we have a word and a name and people are mesmerized by this story, but I think the coverage is super sized rating because everybody knows the ratings go up when you have a story like this.

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, you wanted to jump in. WOLFF: Yes. I mean, I think we can begin to extend this out. It's not a question just of not talking about Bali or talking about terrorism in Israel or what's happening in Iraq. This all becomes -- this entire terrorism story becomes part of this. Is this all about getting on television for everyone? Is the television this instrument of fear really the -- a complicit instrument in what terrorists are trying to accomplish. I mean, I'm surprised that I find myself saying this now, but I think it is something very clearly we have to begin to think about.

KURTZ: Well, this is a troubling notion, the idea that you all seem to be implying, suggesting that yes, the media are not just covering a depressing, difficult and in many ways scary story, but actually selling fear, marketing fear...

WOLFF: Yes, Howie...


WOLFF: ... I think -- I think -- I think maybe we should step back. It's not necessarily the media. It's television. That's the centerpiece of this.

KURTZ: Well, wait a second now. Sniper stories on all three news magazine covers this week, lots of front-page stories in newspapers. Obviously, television has the most dramatic impact.


WOLFF: Right...

ROBERTS: One of the phenomenon that we have learned about, there are certain situations where we do make a judgment as media that the responsible thing to do is to back off from coverage. For instance, in a hostage situation...

KURTZ: Sure.

ROBERTS: ... where there, clearly hostage taking often is designed specifically to attract media coverage. I think those cases are very rare because I think by our huge obligation is to inform the people as much as possible, but there are very rare cases and this might be one of them, where we have to back off a little bit because if there's any truth to what Michael is saying, then we are feeding the whole thing.

KURTZ: Particularly when it's now been five days -- five or six days without a shooting, and I've been talking to journalists here in Rockville, Maryland who say they come in and they have to find things to talk about because there hasn't been hard news -- thankfully, there hasn't been any more since shooting Monday.

I want to go to this question of this experts that we see on every channel -- we see quoted in every story. Let's take a look at a typical example piece of tape from "LARRY KING LIVE" just the other night. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LARRY KING LIVE")

LARRY KING, HOST: Is he someone, Jack, who might this weekend be sitting around, having dinner with the wife and kids and going to a picnic and watching the World Series?

JACK LEVIN, CRIMINOLOGIST: The truth is he has other responsibilities in his life. He may be married. He may be playing with his children, watching football on Sunday, or he may have a part- time job. And even worse, he may take the weekends to plan and conspire and connive and make sure that he isn't caught when he goes back on his shooting spree during the week.

KING: Robert Ressler, is he -- would he be inclined to watch this program?

ROBERT RESSLER, FMR. FBI CRIMINAL PROFILER: I think so, Larry. People that do these types of things are really seeking infamy in many respects...


KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, I keep hearing from all these assorted experts that the sniper is young; he's middle age; he's married; he's not married; he has a job. Should the networks be putting on all these profilers and psychologists and letting them speculate about the presumed motivation of somebody that we don't know who it is?

INGRAHAM: First of all, I had no idea we had so many former FBI profilers out there. But every time you seemed to turn on a television station, there's an FBI profiler, former profiler. It is -- it is just lunacy. People are just engaged in sheer conjecture. Who knows right now what this guy is thinking or if it's even a guy? It probably is, but no one knows anything and yet everyone keeps talking about it. I mean, Howie, you guys are anchoring this show from Rockville, Maryland.

Why are you anchoring it from Rockville, Maryland? What's happened today that makes it a place that you need to be? I mean, again, it just -- it continues -- the tragedy TV approach to this whole thing. I call cable news "tragedy TV" because all too often, that's what it sounds like.

ROBERTS: You know, there's another dimension to this, and that is what's even worse than speculating whether the guy's out with his kids on Sunday, that is trying to put a face on sniper. But even more damaging is the speculation he might be a terrorist, and that he might be linked to international terror network. That really can scare the heck out of people, and I don't think that that kind of speculation is justified until you have evidence; if you have evidence, absolutely. But there's no evidence and yet, I see people going on and just totally out of thin air saying well, maybe he's from al Qaeda. That's irresponsible.


WOLFF: Yes, I mean I think...

KURTZ: Go ahead.

WOLFF: ... I think you can go further than this. This is all made up. There is nothing here, absolutely nothing. It's television engaged in -- yes I think it is television engaged in selling this event. This is theater.

KURTZ: Well, obviously the point that's not made up is the fact that there are nine people dead. How we deal with that is the question -- to answer Laura's question.


WOLFF: Well -- yes, but that's...


WOLFF: ... you just stated the news. There is nothing beyond that.

KURTZ: OK. We're here in Rockville because the conventions of live television is you go where the story is, even though obviously most of the people here in this village outside the police headquarters are reporters looking for a story. Now this, in fact, is the place where people -- anyone who's turned on a television has seen this week. Police Chief Charles Moose from Montgomery County, other police officials briefing the press, holding those news conferences that don't contain a lot of news. Police Chief Moose got upset, again, this week with media coverage. Let's take a look at what he had to say on Thursday.


CHIEF CHARLES MOOSE, MONTGOMERY CO., MD POLICE: When we have the media interviewing witnesses, interviewing potential witnesses and writing stories as a result of what those witnesses or those people that they interview report, then we get this noise, this confusion out there that I think somehow causes people to have tunnel vision, causes people to you know focus in on things that are not appropriate. Then the resulting stories have caused us to spend time today trying to clarify things that we're trying to do.


KURTZ: Steve Roberts, you teach media ethics. The chief of police says we shouldn't be interviewing witnesses, but isn't that what journalists do on these kinds of stories?

ROBERTS: Yes, it is. One person who can make me sympathetic to the media on this story is Police Chief Moose, who has -- seems to have not understood his constitution and not understood the role of the media. I don't think he's very experienced in these things, to be fair, and his comments are not helpful. We'll all agree that the media has gone over the line in some of the hype, but to suggest...

KURTZ: But he's saying basically stay out of it and when we have information, we'll let you know.

ROBERTS: He's absolutely wrong about that. We have an obligation to this community and this country to tell the story. We have an obligation to tell it fairly, moderately, reasonably, sanely, but we have an obligation.

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, you're in New York where I guess it's in the late '70s, we all went through the Son of Sam serial killings. At that time, there was no cable news. It was really a tabloid story. Do you see any differences between the way the media dealt with that story involving David Berkowitz and the current sniper mania?

WOLFF: Well, you know to the extent that I blamed television before, I think if you go back to that, to the Son of Sam summer, the tabloids actually just took the role of television. There was -- there was no difference. The tabloids really ran that story. As a matter of fact, and the interesting thing is that -- is that Berkowitz began to communicate with the tabloids and essentially he began to write his own story through the tabloids. Now to some extent, I think that there's a parallel in the extent that this -- that this person, the sniper, is working -- is working the news cycle and working the 24/7 cable news stations.

KURTZ: But Laura Ingraham...

WOLFF: But...

KURTZ: ... we just have a brief moment. Are we confident in saying the sniper is working the news cycle or reacting to the media, when again...


KURTZ: ... it's a mystery?

INGRAHAM: I think we have no idea. Any -- I don't think we know anything about the sniper except that he -- his weapon is probably an AR-15 or some type of weapon like that. We really know nothing. The police seem to know little, at least they're not telling us. And then Chief Moose -- Chief Moose should be sticking to the investigation probably and not holding so many press conferences because as Steve said, he's really not experienced in this.

He's -- I'm sure he's very dedicated. He seems like a nice guy, but be frustrated with the media. The media is there -- of course the media is going to cover the story and interview witnesses. That's one piece of information the media is well within its right of pursuing. But you know, I just think at this point we know very little and discussing this case probably does nothing but add more disinformation to the whole process.

KURTZ: I'd like to see more experts when questioned about is he going to strike again use that phrase we have no idea because in truth we do not.

When we come back the media turn their sights on gun control. Are they taking sides -- in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Steve Roberts, all these stories we're seeing now after the sniper shootings about gun control and should we have ballistics fingerprinting, is this inevitable after a rash of shootings, or is this the media returning to one of their favorite topics?

ROBERTS: Well, I think some of it is inevitable because politicians are talking about it and we have an obligation to cover that. But politicians go to it because they know this is a moment when they catch the media's attention. You're a long time if you're a gun control advocate without getting much attention, without getting on TV shows.

They know that the minute there's a shooting of some sort that they will get attention. Fair enough, every interest group plays that game, but the history of these things is the attention flares and dies very quickly. After Columbine and many other instances, the interest of the public and the interest of television has not persisted on gun control.

KURTZ: I wonder, Michael Wolff, whether we should pursue this question of gun control, the debate that never seems to go away, particularly after there's a mass shooting or serial shootings, as in the sniper case, or whether -- you know whether it frankly seems exploitive to do it right now while people, at least in the Washington area, are still afraid that there may be well more shootings, whether it seems like we're capitalizing on tragedy.

WOLFF: No. My -- for God's sake, that is the story. I mean, it is really ultimately the only thing that's going on here. Why is this happening? Very clearly because somebody has a gun. I mean, guns do kill people, and it is -- it is -- I mean, actually the -- from the media's standpoint, the shocking thing is that -- is that we wait only to this point to discuss this story. But yes, it's the whole deal.

KURTZ: But of course it's not clear that any kind of gun regulation would stop this particular tragedy because we don't know...

WOLFF: It's...

KURTZ: ... who the shooter is and how he got the gun...

WOLFF: Well...

KURTZ: ... and all that.

WOLFF: ... it's overwhelming. It is absolutely clear in gross terms that it would stop it. If there were no guns, there would be no shootings.

KURTZ: Laura Ingraham...

WOLFF: I mean this... KURTZ: ... I'm sure you want to jump in here.

WOLFF: ... is totally foolish.

KURTZ: Are the media pushing this idea of gun control Laura Ingraham?

INGRAHAM: Sorry, I'm having a slight problem.

KURTZ: Can you go right ahead?



INGRAHAM: Howie, what's happened here is that it's the usual suspects and the gun control debate. Every time there's a gun shooting, every time there's an act of violence repeated in a community in the United States, it's the same old chorus of anti- Second Amendment. People out there saying if we only had another law. We have thousands of laws on the books. People are going to do evil deeds out there. There's no proof that gun fingerprinting works in the two jurisdictions where it actually is being used and being implemented. No convictions have taken place as a result of that, and yet these continue to be the sideshows of all these debates. So it's not that surprising.

KURTZ: Steve Roberts, Laura Ingraham said earlier in the show that we ought to cover the Bali explosion and lots of other things that are going on. There is mid-term elections in a couple of weeks. I wonder not only are the media fixating on the sniper story because of its inherent drama and obviously it's a very personal story for people who live here...


KURTZ: ... in the community. But are we doing a disservice by kind of blowing everything else off the radar screen?

ROBERTS: I think we are. There (UNINTELLIGIBLE) game up here. You know there's going to be 22 minutes on the nightly news every night. There's going to be a front page with six or seven stories, and this -- and this story does eat up a lot of room, and there's a lot going on. Now Indonesia is a long way away. It's expensive to cover. Most Americans are not interested in it, but in any sense of inherent importance, it's an enormously important story.

It's the largest Muslim country in the world. It could very well be harboring remnants of al Qaeda that have -- that have -- might be there planning other attacks. We should be covering that, but it's also a reflection of the fact that most TV networks don't cover foreign news hardly at all anyway.

KURTZ: I feel all that changed after September 11. Michael Wolff, is this monomania on the sniper story starting to bother you at all? WOLFF: Yes, it bothers me terribly, but it's not just the monomania on the sniper story. It's monomania on whatever the one story of the day is and that's from a structural standpoint. It's just because we do one story. If we go to -- if we go to war in Iraq, we won't hear another word about the sniper.

KURTZ: All right. I wasn't expecting you to stop right there. You're certainly right. Laura Ingraham, brief comment before we go.

INGRAHAM: I just think, again, it's going back to the media coverage issue a little bit, Howard. It all has to be done with some measure of respect for what happened, respect for the victims, and respect for news gathering. I mean there's a lot of positive things the media can do in these crime cases. Adding to the speculation and the disinformation just to get ratings certainly isn't one or two of those things that the media should be doing right now.

KURTZ: That is a good place to leave it. Laura Ingraham, Atlanta, Michael Wolff in New York, Steve Roberts here in Rockville, Maryland, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Bernard Kalb turns his attention to terrorism in the "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (on camera): Here's the latest, the October issue of "The National Geographic Traveler" magazine came out just a few days ago.

(voice-over): And it features the exotic island of Bali and the million and a half tourists it attracts each year. But there's a sudden unintended urgency to this question. Still paradise? But the concern in these pages has to do with the commercialization of Bali, the souvenir shops, the bars, the Internet cafe, not the impact of terrorism on Bali's future.

In and instant, Bali went from being a cover story on travel to a front-page story around the world, from a duck in the Pacific to a cauldron of horror with almost 200 people killed in that attack with possible links to Islamic terrorists. But an exploding Bali also represented a challenge to the talk shows. People knew about Bali, all right, but exactly where was it, and how come a mostly Hindu island as a terror target, an island once described as the morning of the world.

By contrast, it's easy to round up the usual suspects that talk about Iraq and Europe and China, even North Korea. But this was a very out-of-the way corner of the world, a speck in the ocean. It was time, in other words, to reach for a TV secret weapon -- the mighty Rolodex with its experts on any known subject, plus the various guides of policy experts put out by the think tanks and suddenly, you saw faces you never saw before, explaining Bali and Indonesia and the al Qaeda implications for Southeast Asia.

(on camera): No, I myself made my first visit to Bali many years ago, and I must say getting to know Bali as a byproduct of terror is not the way to get to know Bali. But terror, as we've been told, can erupt anywhere; Bali proves it. And it looks as though the mighty Rolodex will be introducing us to a lot of new faces until whenever terror is ultimately done in, wiped out.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES from here in Rockville, Maryland. I'm Howard Kurtz.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


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