Giving it up in Colorado
Some critics wonder if KKTV was right to consent to interview fugitives
By Dan Trigoboff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/28/2001 7:00:00 PM
Perhaps it was fitting that, scarcely a day after the last of the seven escaped Texas convicts were back in custody, word went out of a made-for-TV movie.
Following a tip to police from a couple who'd seen photos of the fugitives on Fox's America's Most Wanted, police arrested four of the escapees in Colorado Springs, Colo., last Monday. A fifth killed himself as officers closed in on their motor home.
The remaining two surrendered peacefully at a nearby Holiday Inn early Wednesday morning after police arranged for them to be interviewed over local station KKTV (TV).
Certainly America's Most Wanted-whose attention to the prison break led police to Colorado Springs-could hardly be faulted for the end result. But broadcast news, locally or nationally, does not exist to complement or compliment the work of law enforcement.
Many major stories seem made for TV these days, but TV was a major player in this one. At a news conference Wednesday, El Paso (Colo.) County Sheriff John Anderson told an assembly of press people that, with the media's help, police were able to deputize the nation. It was first time the work of a national television show and later a local news operation had led directly to convicts' loss of freedom.
And although KKTV anchor Eric Singer's poised and deliberate interview with the last two fugitives drew praise locally and nationally, there was concern whether the level of cooperation and controlled setting impinged on journalistic independence.
"I don't think this was an easy call," said Bob Steele, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute. "Once you agree to give these fugitives live television coverage you are not functioning fully as a journalist. And once you decide to cooperate and give this platform, you are serving the interests of police and public safety and not asking the questions you would normally ask as a reporter."
For his part, America's Most Wanted host and front-man John Walsh was elated by the recovery of the convicts and by his show's role in the drama. AMW played a part by intent and design. "We profiled these guys when they escaped Dec. 13. We went to Texas..We got about 500 tips." The couple who alerted police to the escapees' location saw the Jan. 20 show and downloaded photos from the show's Web site. Aiding in the capture of criminals and criminal suspects is the 14-year-old Fox program's avowed purpose, and it claims 646 success stories as of last week.
Walsh, whose crusade against criminals began after the 1981 abduction and murder of his 6-year-old son, Adam, spoke emotionally of meeting with relatives and friends of 29-year-old police officer Aubrey Hawkins, killed outside a sporting-goods store in Irving, Texas, following the escape.
Walsh said he learned of the capture when changing planes in Dallas on his way to the NATPE show. "I got off the plane, and law enforcement officers came to us and told me, 'You've got to call your office right away.'"
KKTV got its moment in the spotlight when local police called the station, relaying the request from the remaining fugitives that they be interviewed either by KKTV or MSNBC before surrendering. And after Singer, news director Brian Rackham and others discussed the opportunity, they decided to go for it.
"We have owned this story. Isn't it our job to report the news?" Singer asked, and that's where the news was.
Singer, Rackham and a crew went to the Holiday Inn where the convicts were trapped, and watched negotiations for hours before the interview. Instructed to avoid subjects that might evoke inflammatory responses-like the post-escape killing of the Texas policeman or the death penalty-the once and future inmates used their time to complain about Texas prison conditions.
Afterward, Singer's role was thoroughly scrutinized, and not all thought KKTV did the proper thing. "There are always going to be critics," Singer said. "I know we saved lives."
Ethicist Steele acknowledged that there can be "a strong argument for cooperating with law enforcement in such an extreme situation," but he was concerned that their might have been too much motivation to "own the story. You cannot connect 'news you can use' to a decision to give up journalistic independence."
And despite the national attention, local rivals disputed how KKTV handled the story and scoffed at the suggestion that KKTT "owned" the story.
Dave Rose, news director at KRDO-TV , Colorado Springs said,"We've all unearthed some interesting things about those people living in our community, although I guess I'd have to say they owned the interview.
"I hesitate to second-guess Brian Rackham. But I would not have put those convicts on the air live, although I'd have done about everything else they did. But I don't think our obligation as journalists can be met by letting the bad guys say whatever they want. And I've never talked to a prisoner who liked the prison system."
Dan Dennison, news director at KOAA-TV Colorado Springs, believes KKTV got the national attention because of preferential treatment by police. The convicts had asked for a representative from either KKTV or MSNBC, he noted, and police might have contacted KOAA-TV, the local NBC affiliate.
"I think we all covered it very aggressively," he said. "My problem is that the police department and the authorities gave KKTV access to exclusive video behind police lines." Dennison says he raised the issue, to no avail, with police hours before Singer conducted the interview.
It's not sour grapes toward KKTV -although, he said, KKTV would not agree to give KOAA-TV a feed of the interview and KOAA-TV then refused to use Singer's name in its stories. "I'd be disingenuous if I said we wouldn't have taken the same opportunity," Dennison said. "But I hope to hell I would agree to a pool camera."
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