The Media and the D.C. Sniper Case
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CHIEF CHARLES MOOSE, Montgomery County, Md.: We’d like to thank the media for carrying a message that has been very well done. I know that that’s somewhat awkward, and we appreciate that.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s “awkward” for Chief Charles Moose is the sometimes tense but interdependent relationship between the press and police. The chief’s use of the media to send messages to the shooter is only the latest example of this constant process of give-and-take.
Police need to communicate with a jittery public. The press needs to inform the public and remain independent from law enforcement.
MIKE BUCHANAN, WUSA-TV Anchor: The killer left a calling card.
TERENCE SMITH: While relying on the media, the chief has lashed out at it on several occasions. He blasted the CBS affiliate in Washington, WUSA, and the Washington Post for reporting on the tarot card message left near the scene of one shooting.
CHIEF CHARLES MOOSE: 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.
TERENCE SMITH: WUSA TV responded with this statement:
GORDON PETERSON, WUSA-TV Anchor: WUSA Nine News stands behind our report. The information was obtained from several credible sources active in the ongoing investigation. We made contact with appropriate police authorities, and a request to withhold the information was never made by the authorities. WUSA Nine News takes our responsibility to inform the public seriously and will continue to do so.
TERENCE SMITH: While both press and police serve the public, their duties occasionally collide, as they did yesterday when leaks to news organizations led to a late disclosure from authorities.
DAVID BLOOM, NBC News: So why did authorities wait three days to disclose the threat to children, and why did they ask NBC News last night not to? Because, sources say, the sniper in his two notes to police explicitly warned them not to publicly disclose this information, threatening more violence.
In the end they decided that with at least nine and perhaps now ten murders blamed on the sniper in less than three weeks the public on this matter had the right to same information they had.
TERENCE SMITH: Chief Moose has derided the “ranting and raving” of crime analysts and former law enforcement officials in the media.
MIKE RUSTIGAN, Criminologist: There’s two basic motivations here with the serial sniper.
TERENCE SMITH: With so little real information to report, broadcast and print media have enlisted a small army of experts to theorize on the shooter’s motivation.
ANALYST: He’s trying to do something so heinous that he gets the publicity he seeks…
TERENCE SMITH: …and to handicap the progress of the investigation.
ANALYST: But they’re doing everything they can do to track him down.
TERENCE SMITH: Some reporters have deputized themselves.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN Anchor: I’m going to try to do a little police work here myself.
TERENCE SMITH: The shooting spree has also provided a ratings boost.
ANNOUNCER: Sniper on the loose. Tonight on “Crossfire.”
TERENCE SMITH: All three cable news channels have seen a 25 to 30 percent jump in viewership since the attacks began.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are law enforcement veteran Mike Brooks, who served 26 years on the Washington, D.C., police force and was a member of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force.
He has been providing analysis on this story for CNN. Also, Washington news anchor Andrea McCarren of the ABC affiliate WJLA-TV; and Rita Cosby, Fox News Channel national correspondent and host of “Foxwire.” Welcome to you, all.
Andrea McCarren, Chief Moose is not happy with the media; he was caustic in his comments about the disclosure involving the tarot card. What is your response?
ANDREA McCARREN, Anchor, WJLA-TV: Well, Terry, it is a daily balancing act for us in local news. We have an obligation to our communities.
We’re members of that community. We have an obligation to report and of course it’s far easier to disseminate information than to withhold it; and we are cooperating with authorities on a local level – not divulging things.
Yesterday morning we were in the unusual and extraordinary position of not divulging where police had put up roadblocks trying to catch this guy because they felt that would alienate the investigation.
We were asked by the local hospital where this victim was taken not to divulge the location of that simply because they were afraid security-wise.
So it’s something we have to gauge day by day. I also — I’m proud of how local coverage has gone simply because we have not gone rapid fire with every bit of information we have gotten in as I have witnessed some of the 24-hour cable stations have.
For instance, they went last week reporting for hours fanning the hysteria that there were reports of a shooting at an elementary school. That proved completely false. And you can see the potential impact of that on our community.
They reported about a shooting at a motel where we know local police dismissed that as a domestic incident right away. So we are using restraint in what we report because again it’s our community we’re reporting to.
TERENCE SMITH: Rita Cosby, as the representative of cable news in this discussion, how do you plead to that statement by Andrea?
RITA COSBY, Fox News National Correspondent: Well, can I tell that you I think we have been extremely responsible and I can tell you firsthand because of I know of at least maybe seven or eight shootings where we got details and we said wait until we know specifically that this looks like there are some signs pointing in the direction, until investigators are going down.
In fact, I was the one who got the first report last Saturday night about that shooting in Ashland, Virginia, and until I knew that Nancy Demme, who is the captain, of course, of the police department, was heading down there — that clearly was a signal — until we knew the roads were being blocked off — then we went to air with it, and it was only until then.
I do think there has been some hysteria. I think it’s a very frightening story, but I will also tell you that there a lot of decisions made behind the scenes, and even though we’re filling a lot of time, the public is very interested in this but there is a lot of editorial processes behind the scenes that you’re not aware about.
And I can also tell you that it’s interesting we have a lot of discussions and I think as this story has been developing we’re very careful not to report every shooting, not to report every particular incident and also putting it in context too.
I also care about that community; I lived there for six and a half years. I just moved to up New York recently. So this hits home for me as well. But I think we’re very careful about what we report, how we report it, and also putting it in context that this is still very, very random and a very slight incident — scary, very frightening but still saying to people look let’s show you the big picture.
And I do think the broadcast networks and I think particularly the 24-hour news because we have a lot of time to fill, we have been doing a very good job of putting it in perspective, trying to understanding the story and understand the context.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Let me ask Mike Brooks from his perspective — from your law enforcement experience having dealt with stories and situations like this including being a negotiator in crisis situations, what is the effect of this sort of coverage on an investigation? Does it make it more difficult?
MIKE BROOKS, Law Enforcement Analyst: I think right now, Terry, that the media has been doing pretty well. Early on chief Moose came out and he chastised the media and he came back and he was a little more conciliatory; then he came out again and chastised the media for following some of his investigators around supposedly.
But I think that the relationship in the Washington metropolitan area, as Andrea said, has always been fairly good. Having been on the other side of that for many, many years — and I fostered a relationship with the a lot of the media personnel that we see on the air today — and, you know, sometimes you can live by the media and you can die by the media and I think that the media overall is doing a fairly good job.
Some of the problem I have is with some of the — as Chief Moose put it when he was chastising the media or some of talking heads like myself — the news agencies have to be extremely careful to vet the people before they put them on the air to make sure that who they say they are and what their background is is accurate.
Some of things they are saying could exacerbate the situation when you get profilers and other people on the air talking about the shooter as a coward, calling them names. The shooter may be feeding off of some of the news coverage. If people don’t think that he, she, they are watching, they are sadly mistaken. These people are watching; law enforcement is using the media as a conduit to the shooter.
TERENCE SMITH: From your experience, is it credible that Chief Moose was actually upset that the media by disclosing let’s say the tarot card or perhaps the suggestion of harm to children in the letter that this was forcing his hand, that this was jeopardizing a line of communication with the shooter?
MIKE BROOKS: Well take the tarot card for instance, I don’t think it was that big of a deal. I spoke to some of my former colleagues and some of my sources in the Washington metropolitan area who are working the case and they also thought it wasn’t that big of a deal at that time and still don’t really think it was that big of a deal.
Now, we have to remember — Chief Moose has to remember that that information was given to Mike Buchanan from the CBS affiliate WUSA — he was given that information by a law enforcement officer. Is it one of locals or one of the federal officers who are investigating this, we don’t know — but his — I consider him a friend of law enforcement.
When I was on the street, he was one of the people that I trusted the most. If they had asked him to hold the information, he would have held the information; WUSA held information about a triple homicide in the Georgetown section of Washington for a long period of time because investigators asked them to do so. So I think they are very responsible and I don’t really think it was that big of a deal.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Let me ask Andrea McCarren about that. You mentioned several things that you knew and did not report out of concern for the impact. Has your station made a sort of policy decision to observe — when the police ask you not to report something, what is your answer?
ANDREA McCARREN: We are willing to cooperate in this instance. That doesn’t mean we’re not asking the police chief tough questions but — we’re not pandering to the police but we’re cooperating as members of community.
I might also add that this is one of those rare occasions I believe in local news that we’re actually performing a public service. And I would agree with Mike, I thought the tarot card incident was not a big deal.
I actually thought that was the case of good reporting. And it is my understanding that the reporter in question was not asked to withhold that information.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, that’s clearly the case from the statement from WUSA, but in the other instance involving disclosure of some of the contents of the letter from the shooter I would gather Chief Moose is arguing his hand was forced by the media?
ANDREA McCARREN: And we’re in an interesting position of being used as pawns somewhat as he relays these cryptic statements to the sniper. It’s an extraordinary case. I have gotten a slew of e-mail from our viewers and the vast majority is supportive of what we’re doing.
In the early stages of this — back October 2nd, October 3rd, there was a lot of concern about our round-the-clock coverage and that we were encouraging the sniper.
TERENCE SMITH: That he was feeding off it in some fashion?
ANDREA McCARREN: Exactly. Exactly.
TERENCE SMITH: Rita Cosby, you took some heat earlier from media critics and others by seeking out comment from David Berkowitz — the so called “Son of Sam” — a serial killer who is now in jail for his killings back in the 70s. Do you have any regrets about that?
What are your thoughts in hindsight about seeking his comment on this case — a serial killer on a case miles away that I suppose he can’t have any particular knowledge of?
RITA COSBY: Well, it’s interesting. As you say, he doesn’t have any particular knowledge but you just talked about all the different talking heads. Mike and Andrea were just talking about all the different talking heads.
Here is a man who does have unfortunately some particular insight. I have absolutely no regrets with talking with him. And the reason I say that if David Berkowitz had written to me and said look — atta boy — that was a great thing the sniper did — keep going and encouraging him that would absolutely be despicable.
That was not the case. In the letter that I received from him instead he said I’m urging this man to stop; I made a horrible mistake, and I hope he is listening to me. He also provided some interesting insight that may be helpful to law enforcement, talking about some of the possible motivations and also some of the ways that maybe law enforcement could reach out to him.
This is a very critical phase, a communication phase, as we’ve been talking about, the back and forth between the police and the sniper or snipers as we don’t know at this point. And David Berkowitz unfortunately knows that situation all too well.
This is a man who was in that situation years ago and he talked about why he communicated with police. And he said maybe there are some things that I can suggest that would be helpful. His message was one, please get this man behind bars; this is a terrible thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Mike Brooks, what do you think of that from a law enforcement perspective, approaching someone like David Berkowitz?
MIKE BROOKS: Well, I don’t think that there’s any harm in that. In fact, law enforcement psychologists, the FBI psychologists, when these people are caught and when they are arrested, they are make an effort to go out to interview these people to find out what makes them tick, what was the motivation behind this, their particular crime that they committed, and to let the people know a little bit about the background behind what drives some of these serial killers.
I think it’s very interesting. I myself on the Berkowitz case I knew a lot of that — when I did training with the FBI on psychological profiling they used the interviews that they have done with these serial killers as part of training to delve into the psyche of these people.
TERENCE SMITH: Andrea McCarren what is your reaction?
ANDREA McCARREN: I think on a local level we are being more caution in terms of vetting the relevance of our guests. For instance, if we interview a profiler, it’s more about what a profiler can do rather than asking them to tell us who the sniper is in our area.
We’re serving a different function now. Rather than filling airtime with a slew of talking heads, what we are doing is informing parents and in some cases reassuring them, telling them about school closings, changes in traffic patterns. We have a different role to play in this.
TERENCE SMITH: Rita Cosby, how much is too much when it comes to saturation coverage of a story like this? One — a viewer of ours wrote into to us today and accused of media of creating what he called hysteria by design. What do you think of that?
RITA COSBY: I don’t think there’s any by design. I mean, I can tell you that I have been in discussions at the highest levels at Fox Network and I know my colleagues at the other networks go through the same thing. This is not a story that we’re anxious to report. Look the ratings have been good but that’s a side effect.
This is a story that we really care about and something that hits everybody in this community. And as I just mentioned to you, this is a community that I lived in for six and a half years. So it hits very close to home for me and when we saw the shooting the other day of bus driver and then of course the schoolboy, all these cases, your heart just sank.
This is a story that is so personal, almost unlike any other story that we’ve covered. I do think though as you point out there is this fear of over saturation — on the other hand the story keeps changing. It keeps evolving and people certainly want to tune in.
I mean, you look at the numbers. People are interested; they want to know is their community safe. And it is a toughie — it’s a tough balancing act. But I think we and I think the other networks are doing a better job. I think at first there was sheer craziness and how do we cover this because it was a story like any other that we’ve ever had to cover.
On the other hand I think as time goes on everybody I think is doing a better job of putting into perspective — explaining the context and even doing the things that Andrea is talking about. We’re addressing international and also of course domestic audience, we at Fox News, but we’re also focusing on still what can you could to be safe because this is a story even if you don’t live in Washington, D.C., you’re scared.
So we’re still trying to provide the same type of tips and same type of information; I think we’re doing a better job all of us at realizing we have to stay calm and we also have a public service, too, and we realize that.
ANDREA McCARREN: I just want to give your viewers an idea of level of craziness this has reached. Montgomery County police have issued somewhere between seven and eight hundred media credentials to organizations from around the world.
I happen to have children in the local school system where the shootings have been happening. My five-year-old daughter was ambushed by media, overseas media, at school today because she was weeping and hugging her father’s legs.
This had nothing to do with the fact that there was a sniper out there, and she didn’t want to go to school; it was the simple fact that her father had forgotten her pink backpack today. So the level of hysteria is fueled by the international coverage.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Mike Brooks, just very briefly, can you tell us the impact of this sort of saturation coverage on an investigation, does it help, does it hurt or does it do both? Quickly.
MIKE BROOKS: I think it can help and it can hurt. We have to make sure — especially on speculation. You can speculate all you want. But you have to make sure you say if you think it’s speculation instead of saying it’s fact.
We’re getting a lot of this from some of the profiling experts. They are saying this person is this way and this person is going to be doing this, this is his next step; all speculation.
I think it can help also to get the word out. People all over the country have been calling me saying, hey, I have a kid that’s going to be going on a field trip to Washington.
Here in Atlanta, Georgia, the people are saying as he moves further South to Ashland, Virginia, is he coming this way, is he coming to Georgia? People care about what is going on and the media is the conduit to get that information out to the people.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Mike Brooks, Rita Cosby, Andrea McCarren, thank you all three very much.