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Committed to the First Amendment 10/27/2002 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Be on the lookout

The love-hate relationship between the media and law enforcement was on worldwide display during the D.C. sniper spree/investigation that appears, blessedly, to be drawing to a close.

The electronic press became both chronicler and participant, eventually serving as a police conduit to the sniper when tip-line operators apparently hung up on him, then leaking a description of the suspects' license plate that led directly to their capture after the car was spotted by a truck driver listening to the radio.

Throughout the three-week ordeal, there was media criticism of the investigation (not enough information released, procedural missteps), police criticism of the coverage (too much information being reported, some of it wrong) and media criticism of itself for overcoverage and sensationalism. All were legitimate criticisms, and to be expected from adversarial groups under extreme pressure. The police were trying to catch a killer while in the center ring of a media circus. The press was trying to keep a frightened public informed, which is their worthy calling, while hustling for information and angles that would help them outrate their competition, which is the often muddy underbelly of the insatiable news beast. Mistakes were made. They should be studied and avoided in the future.

It was much like a dysfunctionally functional family that, despite its squabbles and flaws, manages at day's end to get together and, to everyone's relief , tuck the children safely in bed.

Wrongful suit

We have to agree on both counts with the court that threw out the $29 million wrongful-death judgment against The Jenny Jones Show. The case stemmed from a 1995 episode in which the object of a same-sex crush later killed his secret admirer.

The first is that crime is unpredictable. If the police can't prevent it—and it's their job to do so—TV producers can't be held legally liable for their policing failures. The second count is that the court said many would deem that particular piece of television "the epitome of bad taste and sensationalism." Of course, when the court said that, it apparently wasn't aware that Fox News' Rita Cosby had wooed "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz.

Give 'em a hand

There is something for everyone to applaud in Nielsen's planned changes to local ratings. Cable clients will get their ratings at the same time as broadcasters. Broadcasters will be happy because cable-only numbers will be broken out from cable/satellite ratings. Ad buyers will be happy that they don't have to juggle two different sets of numbers coming in at two different times. The only downside is timing. Nielsen says it will be a year before the changes. The sooner the better.

 

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