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Did Media Help Catch Beltway Sniper?

Aired October 26, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Covering the capture: Did the media help catch the sniper by putting out crucial information that the police failed to release? Did they scare people by playing up the sniper's threat against children? And all those profiles of an angry white man, how did so many made-for-TV experts get it so wrong?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Since the hunt for the Washington sniper reached its dramatic climax, wall-to-wall coverage on the airwaves, much as it has been the entire three weeks since the shootings began.

There were helicopter pictures of an FBI search far from the scene of the shootings: a backyard in Tacoma, Washington.

There was a description of a car, along with its license plate, released by the press, not the investigators. Then, two names.

Now, after the arrest, the media focus turns to the faces in this previously faceless crime. And whether the accused are, in fact, monsters.

Well, joining us now, four journalists who have been covering the sniper story from the beginning: Chris Gordon, reporter and legal analyst at WRC, the NBC station in Washington; Mike Buchanan, a reporter at WUSA, the local CBS affiliate; Carol Morello, reporter from "The Washington Post"; and CNN's Justice Department correspondent, Kelli Arena.

Mike Buchanan, from the moment you reported on that tarot card that was left at one of the shootings, the police have been criticizing the media for putting out too much information and jeopardizing their investigation. How do you plead?



BUCHANAN: I need to call my lawyer. It's -- I can tell you this, there was a debate among the investigators themselves, whether or not that should be released. One thing we never, despite five hours' notice, we never got a call not to use that. And I was expecting one, believe me. Where we'd work out a compromise of some type. That's usually what happens. And number two, even when I'm on the phone to some of the detectives, you can hear the debate in the background: "Let him use it, let him use it." "Don't let him use it, don't let him use it."

KURTZ: A split of opinion, obviously.

BUCHANAN: Yes. You know, if John Dum-Dum lives down the hall and he likes tarot cards and rifles, it might have gotten a dime.

KURTZ: Exactly.

Kelli Arena, it's Wednesday night. The manhunt is one. You've got some information about the car and the license plate. How did you get that information and how did you decide whether to put that on the air?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: We got that information from a variety of sources, and on this story you really needed a consensus, because there was so much out there that was just wrong, flat-out wrong.

We had that, we did have the license plate number, chose not to go with that, because we wanted to wait for the official BOLO: Be On the Look-Out.

KURTZ: You know what that is.

ARENA: Right, be on the look-out. It was an official law enforcement alert that said, okay, this is in fact the vehicle. We were dead on with the information, we knew we were, but you never know. Somebody gets one number off, that's big. You have somebody in a car with that license plate, and you're one number off, and somebody sees them and thinks they're the sniper.

KURTZ: So, out of an excess of caution, you...

ARENA: Out of an abundance of caution...

KURTZ: ... you decided not to ...

ARENA: ... I'm used to saying that. What we decided, to wait until we actually got word of an official BOLO, and then we went with the license plate. We went with the description of the car beforehand, because we also knew ...

KURTZ: Blue Caprice, burgundy Caprice.

ARENA: That's right, that the Chevy Caprice, that had been seen.

KURTZ: But even with that information, Chris, going ahead, not been officially released by the police, and imagine what would happen if the suspects had heard this and they'd changed the license plate or something. The media would have been barbecued and fricasseed for jeopardizing the investigation.

CHRIS GORDON, WRC: Well, let me say this: the media works with the police, and about 95 percent of the time cooperates. But we're not fed information, this is not Communist Russia, we have to do independent journalism. We are the Fourth Estate; we are elected by the viewers. If they don't like what we do, they vote; they turn it off.

And the point is, the First Amendment says freedom of speech, freedom of the press. We're not supposed to have prior restraint. We're not supposed to be censored.

And for that reason, I congratulate Mike Buchanan for going for the story. And he's a competitor of mine; we work together. But he did a story that did not jeopardize this investigation. Think about it, folks. This did not jeopardize this investigation. And he was criticized for it.

KURTZ: How difficult was it for you, Carol Morello, to make decisions under deadline pressure about what to publish, what not to publish? Were there instances of things that you decided to hold out of the newspaper?

CAROL MORELLO, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, there were several instances, and there was a huge debate going on, myself and probably two handfuls worth of editors.

One example was the night that there was a shooting at the Home Depot, where the FBI analyst died. And like many other people, we'd heard reports that there was a suspect who, some people were reporting him as Middle Eastern, olive-skinned. For us, we were hearing conflicting reports and reports that were so amorphous. One of our sources told us that the best witness said it was not white, not black. You know, what are we supposed to do with that? And so ...

KURTZ: You know, lots of TV, radio stations were going with olive-skinned description. You did not go with it.

MORELLO: We left it out. We reported on it the next day but not that night.

KURTZ: There was lots and lots of live coverage of the story, as you know, Mike Buchanan. On local stations you were on as much as seven or eight hours some days. Did that contribute fairly or unfairly to a sense of scaring the community?

BUCHANAN: No. Information is what -- information fights, you know, that counters fear, is what it does. The more information ...

KURTZ: They were hungry for ...

BUCHANAN: They were hungry, I mean, they were desperately hungry to catch the sniper, or sniper team as it turns out. I don't think I've ever seen this community so scared. I mean, even after 9/11. It was -- it's like anybody could be a target, and they were dying, thirsty for information.

And the Montgomery County Police Department, well, they kept talking but they never said anything. For the first eight days of that investigation, correct me if I'm wrong, we had nothing except a white box truck. Nothing.

GORDON: And a white van, and they both turned out to be red herrings.

KURTZ: Exactly. And speaking of withholding information, there was this dramatic note that was left at the Ponderosa Steakhouse after the shooting there in Virginia. You got information about the contents of the note.

ARENA: Right.

KURTZ: Tell us about your decision on whether to go with that piece of information.

ARENA: We got the information from a source that had read the note, about a demand for money. This source backed it up a bit and said, "Well, the way I would describe it is a hint for a demand for money. I can't go any closer than that." We went with that.

The minute we put that information out, we got a phone call from law enforcement saying that is way too sensitive, way too sensitive. Then, of course, we got the rest of the note, which included the P.S. which was "your children aren't safe any time, any where."

And that was when there was a discussion with law enforcement about whether we were to release that or not release it, and it wasn't that they made the decision, but they strongly, strongly advised against that. And said, this is way too sensitive. At the bottom of the note, we knew, was, "Do not share this with the media." They were not sure how much information would set the sniper off ...

KURTZ: That's why you went alone?

ARENA: We, as a news organization, decided that the public knew that children were at risk when that kid got shot...

KURTZ: A boy had already been shot.

ARENA: ... at the high school. That was out there. That was public knowledge. Every mother that I knew, and I am one of them, knew that our kids were in danger. So we didn't feel that -- we felt that the public already knew that information, that children were at risk, but we didn't ...

KURTZ: But ironically, a day later the police decided to release that and, of course, it produced headlines like this in the "New York Daily News."

ARENA: Well, after a press release happened.

KURTZ: No child is safe. Whereas my point is that one day they're telling you it's too sensitive to release ...

ARENA: Well, by that point, though it was out there, and it was out. Everybody had it. And he got hammered and hammered and hammered at that first press conference the next day. KURTZ: How could they hold this back?

ARENA: Right.

KURTZ: Let's talk about dealing with families. You, Chris Gordon, were the first reporter, I am told, to knock on the door of Linda Franklin, the FBI analyst who was killed. How difficult is it to do that in this kind of tragic situation?

GORDON: I've been doing this 25 years. Everyone who does it will tell you, there is no pat speech, your gut is in a knot when you go up and knock on the door. I was hoping that her husband would not answer. He did not. An FBI chaplain answered the phone saying, "Her husband's overwrought."

And I said, "I understand." And then I just, I said, "If anyone from the family can either talk, speak for her. We didn't want her to be number nine, or the next number. We want people to know." And then something was in the back of my head, and I said, "Excuse me, you're an FBI chaplain. Did the FBI send you?"

He said, "Oh, no. She works for the FBI."

I said, "She did?"

I broke the story that she was an FBI analyst because the FBI had sent a chaplain to be with her husband. And he told me the whole story, the husband was there in the call, saw her shot, did not see the gunman, did not see the van. I had a lot of information to go with as a result.

But it's always tough. And we retreated across the street, gave them their distance. And once we got a picture, and once we got a spokesman, an FBI spokesman, we left. And I did my report from the FBI headquarters.

KURTZ: Right.

GORDON: We would not stay in that neighborhood.

KURTZ: Right.

GORDON: We would not impose.

KURTZ: It's the worst assignment in journalism. I've had to do it a couple of times myself.

GORDON: That's right.

KURTZ: Now there were other, earlier arrests in this case on Monday, as people may now forget. There were hours and hours of cable coverage. Let's take a brief look of what some of that looked like.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... If you're confused why this is pulled up to a phone booth, we don't really understand why, as well. But apparently within minutes of whoever this was in this van either getting on a phone or riding at this location, 30 or so police cars arrived and ...


KURTZ: While cable was going absolutely bonkers, Carol Morello, over these, what turned out to be the arrest of two Mexican immigrants, had nothing to do with the case, what were you doing?

MORELLO: I was sitting there watching it, and I was actually quite troubled by it, because I was concerned, you know, what if these are just the messengers and the real sniper's out there ...

KURTZ: Exactly.

MORELLO: ... and his response would be a bullet.

KURTZ: Were you asked about a story?

MORELLO: In fact, I did write a story. We were going to put it on the Web. We waited, first for the press briefing mid-day, and then we started getting reports that maybe the information wasn't good, that maybe these guys had nothing to do with it.

So we made a conscious decision to hold off until we knew one way or another. It's a luxury the print has that TV doesn't.

KURTZ: Exactly. Now during all of the 24-hour blather that we've all heard for so many weeks on this horrible and horrifying story, we were looking for a white van, a white sniper, and that turned out not to be the case.

Let's take a brief look at what some of the experts, ex- detectives, ex-profilers and other self-appointed wise men and women had to say on this case.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the two people to act in unison and keep a secret for now 20 days, that's almost an impossibility. So I said originally, it's probably one guy. I still think it's just one person.

CHRIS WHITCOMB: This guy has some role, some idea of what a sniper is all about from a romanticized version, and he probably doesn't have direct training in this, but he is a wannabe.


KURTZ: Some red faces afterwards including from former detective Bo Dietl, who had this to say on CNN.


BO DIETL, FORMER DETECTIVE: I always said there was probably two white teenagers, but you know what, I'm not a clairvoyant. All I'm glad is they got them.


KURTZ: Chris Gordon, should they be embarrassed? Should they resign from the talking heads society?

GORDON: No, not at all. You see, what they did was they gave their insight, their experience from police work, detective work, FBI profiling work, and they were as wrong as the actual profilers who were doing the job.

The police didn't know. If it hadn't broken with a phone call and a tip from a priest, somebody had confessed. I think they reflected what was going on inside that task force.

I'm a legal analyst. I go on TV. When I'm reporting, I'm not giving my opinion. When I do legal analysis, I do give my opinion. I have a right to do that because of my experience as a lawyer.

KURTZ: Right, but I think you're being way too soft on them. Why does television put on so many of these experts who are not part of the investigation and who are basically speculating, sometimes wildly?

BUCHANAN: Because we don't have any other information. So we go fishing, you know, to try and do something. The police -- the whole idea for a police investigation or a police department's dream is, here's the press release, this is what you print and nothing else. And so we can't live with that, so we try to go around a few corners here and there.

But I mean, these poor profilers. Weather forecasters get to keep their job. They're wrong 50 percent of the time.

KURTZ: Profilers, nobody's forcing them to go on television. And don't you wish, Kelli Arena, that CNN along with the other cable networks, hadn't devoted quite so many hours of air time to experts who basically were guessing, and in many cases guessing wrong? They didn't know.

ARENA: You know, Howie, this is what all of America was doing across their dinner tables, their breakfast tables. They were speculating, they were trying to give their own spin to whatever theory they had about who or what was up.

KURTZ: Shouldn't journalism be held to a higher standard?

ARENA: Well, that's my job. That's my job.

KURTZ: Right.

ARENA: That's my job, as a reporter. And when I went on I was very careful ...

KURTZ: You were. ARENA: ... to let people know what was sourced, how many sources I had. What we had. You know, and I did not go into the area of speculation. They can. They're in a totally different realm than I am.

MORELLO: There were plenty of profilers who refused to speculate and refused to go on television or even return reporters' phone calls.

KURTZ: Good. Well, they should get a gold star. They should get a medal. But let me just read one quote from one of the experts who was on TV, Jack Levin, talking to "The New York Times."

He said, all right, "My predictions were not that close. But the average American was hungry for information. And when there isn't real news, people make up their own. People wanted a story of who this guy was. What we did, by providing it, comforted them."

I think that's claptrap. What do you think?

MORELLO: There are -- people were very scared, they wanted more information, not less. Every time I watched it, there were plenty of, you know, plenty of warnings from the correspondents, from whomever. Having said that, I think the profilers sounded as if they were confident that they had the analysis.

KURTZ: They sure did.

GORDON: Let me say that just before I came to do this program, I spoke to a journalist who said that she has never been as embarrassed to have been a journalist as through this period of time. So I want to say that. I don't want this to be a love-fest by any means.

BUCHANAN: Why? Why was she embarrassed?

GORDON: Because she -- Because there was so much speculation, because there was so much misinformation. People -- I was on the air Friday morning for about three or four hours against you, and people were putting out within hours, "These two suspects will face six murder charges in Montgomery County."

I said, "Wait a second, folks. That's not how it works. They're being held on a federal gun charge. There's no rush to bring charges." And in fact, even now we don't have murder charges pending. So I try to stick to the facts.

KURTZ: Always helps to have the facts.

We need to take a break, and when we come back, a reporter's surprising letter to another famous killer, the Son of Sam. And relatives of the accused sniper filling up the television screens.



Well, just when you thought that everybody in the world had been interviewed about the Washington sniper case, FOX News reporter Rita Cosby wrote a letter to David Berkowitz, Son of Sam, in prison.

The letter said, "Your personal story and spiritual growth inspired me to write to you. ... The Lord calls on individuals at various times to serve him and serve his people. ... You have a testimony that must be heard. Our world is crying and you can help."

Kelli Arena, do you have any desire to hear what Son of Sam thinks about this?

ARENA: You know, I'm from Brooklyn.


ARENA: And I lived through the Son of Sam.

KURTZ: Killed six people, wounded seven.

ARENA: You know, I don't know what value he has to offer in the search for the sniper. I mean, the man has been in prison. What information could he possibly have, what insight? And that's like saying all people who got out there on a rampage and murder others are cut from the same cloth and think the same. That's ...

GORDON: I would defend Rita Cosby. She's one of the best reporters. I've worked with her before on the Maude Adler (ph) trial. I had inside information as to what the judge was going to do in the sentencing. She's the only other one that had that information.

She writes to David Berkowitz. Why are we saying he doesn't have anything to add? Let's see what he says and then assess if he has anything to add, any insight.

KURTZ: Right. Well, he did send her a fax in which he claimed not to have any particular insight about the case but talked about his own situation and so forth.

MORELLO: I think the question's also sort of the fawning tone that was used in the letter.

KURTZ: She was schmoozing him.

GORDON: You don't think Barbara Walters and Connie Chung use the same fawning tone?

KURTZ: Well, it depends on who you're writing to, and that's the issue. There were a number of anchors who wrote very nice letters to the Unabomber when they were trying to ...

GORDON: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... get that mass murderer on the air.

GORDON: And O.J. Simpson, a lot of people were kissing up with him.

BUCHANAN: The Unabomber was caught, Howie, because the hand writing was out there, because they started releasing information.

And how about your story? These guys would be in some other city right now, and I guarantee you there'd be more killings had that leak not come out about the tag number.

KURTZ: License tag number.

GORDON: And they obviously weren't watching cable. They were sleeping in a car. These people weren't, you know, as media savvy as we thought.

KURTZ: But we had no way of knowing that.

I want to touch on the parade of, you know, the sister of the first ex-wife of John Muhammad, the friends and relatives are all being interviewed now. What do you make of this, and can we learn much from it? I mean, how come it always seems that the neighbors say, "He seemed like such a nice guy"?

MORELLO: Well, in this case, some of the neighbors were saying that they thought there was something strange about him at various places, including some of his relatives, like his sister-in-law. But the fact is, while we're learning a few bits of his history, we still don't have any idea what the motive is or what his relationship was with this young man.

KURTZ: Does it become sort of a spectacle where every TV show tries to get the latest relative to come on the air, or is this just the process of reporting, as we try to piece together, who are the people who could actually commit such a cold-blooded, horrible series of crimes?

ARENA: I think that's exactly it. I think it's part of the process, because now you have the two individuals. What drove them to this, you know? And I think many people are intrigued by the 17-year- old Malvo.

GORDON: Was he a shooter? That's the key question. If he's not, his life could be spared. If he is, in Virginia, and he's convicted, they'll kill him.

KURTZ: Right. So talking to friends and relatives helps us round out the portrait of both of these men?

GORDON: Exactly. His nick-name was Sniper up in Washington. Could he be a sniper, the 17-year-old?

KURTZ: During all the back-and-forth over the press' role in this story, Mike Buchanan, did you get any flack from any law enforcement officials? Share with us.

BUCHANAN: You won't tell anybody?


BUCHANAN: Yes, we took some hits, we took some major hits, particularly after Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose came out the next day, you know, and went absolutely bonkers, you know? "If Channel 9 and the Washington Post ..."


BUCHANAN: "... want to work this case, fine."

ARENA: But wait, we heard that was a ruse, though, that was an act.

BUCHANAN: That's right, it was.

KURTZ: It really was?


BUCHANAN: Charles Moose is an outstanding police official, a gentleman and one of the finest actors you will ever see. That was all a put-on.

ARENA: But Doug Duncan told Jeanne Meserve, CNN's Jeanne Meserve that it was, they had to play that role to try to convince the sniper that they were upset. Because of course, it says, "Do not release to the media." So they had to be convincing enough, and so Moose went out there and did his thing, but he really wasn't upset.

GORDON: And I know that there's a Montgomery County council member still wants to strangle Mike Buchanan today.

KURTZ: So I think some of them, it was not an act. Some of them were upset.

And we'll have to leave it there. Carol Morello, Kelli Arena, Chris Gordon, Mike Buchanan, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, just ahead: the press bids farewell to Paul Wellstone.


KURTZ: Before we go, a word about the death of Senator Paul Wellstone.

"I suppose a political columnist isn't supposed to say such a thing," writes liberal E.J. Dionne in the "Washington Post," "but I loved the guy."

Many conservative journalists "The Weekly Standard's" Fred Barnes and "National Review's" Robert Goldberg also praised Wellstone's fighting spirit and decency.

Washington is a small town, it turns out, and Wellstone touched many of those who covered it. No small thing in this age of smash- mouth politics.

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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