The Long Arm of the Media
We were struck by the parade of law-enforcement officials publicly patting themselves on the back last week for the safe return of Elizabeth Smart, particularly since, as with the capture of the Washington, D.C., sniper suspects, it seemed to have as much or more to do with a combination of media and citizen power.
According to reports, Smart was discovered after her family and the news media began publishing sketches of drifter Brian David Mitchell. A couple who had seen the sketches on local TV and Fox's America's Most Wanted
identified Mitchell, confronted him, called police and basically said: Come get him. You will recall that, in the sniper case, the police had actually tried to keep the media from learning of the license number that led to the capture, which occurred only after the information was leaked and broadcast. Citizens spotted the car and effectively said to police: Come get them.
Then there was the tragic Polly Klaas incident a decade ago. ABC's Sam Donaldson, who interviewed law-enforcement officers in that abduction/murder case, reminded his radio audience last week that police had actually stopped the suspect (later convicted of Klaas's killing) while the child may still have been alive. They let him go because he had no outstanding warrants and because the officers did not know a child had been kidnapped. Why? Police told Donaldson at the time that they did want the media to hear about it.
A lot, said Donaldson, has changed since then, although we would argue not enough in terms of giving the media more information. One thing that needs to happen, and fast, is passage of the bill funding a federal AMBER Alert system. The program immediately alerts the news media in the case of a missing-child report. NAB and child advocates have been pushing for the legislation, which passed the Senate but got stuck in the House. With Elizabeth Smart's father begging for passage last week and suggesting that there would be blood on the hands of those who put legislative maneuvering before the lives of children, the bill appeared to be speeding toward passage. We hope so. To borrow an observation from one of Donaldson's callers last week, if legislators can move swiftly to change the name of the french fries in the congressional cafeteria, they ought to be able to get off their derrieres (pardon us, "freedom fannies") to save some lives.
We join with RTNDA, SPJ and others in calling for changes to the Homeland Security Act, specifically knocking out the FOIA restrictions and whistleblower penalties that are overprotective of government secrecy in the name of national—in this case, homeland—security. We're all for having the government watch out for our safety, but, speaking as both citizen and journalist, we would feel a lot more secure knowing that the press was free to uncover information that itself might be of benefit to the nation's health and safety.