TV's tricky role in sniper probe

Media may have missed the Chevy Caprice but probably helped find the elusive killers

In the exhausting weeks the nation's capital was terrorized by a sniper, the media found itself blamed for telling too much, cursed when it reported stories that were leaked to them, and used when Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief Charles A. Moose needed to communicate directly with the shooters. They were taken, figuratively, for a ride in white vans, cream-colored vans and box trucks.

In the end, the news media probably helped catch the alleged snipers, John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, who were spotted early on Oct. 24 by a truck driver who had heard the description of a 1990 Chevy Caprice, the license number and the occupants just hours before.

Even in a gripping story that had news breaking regularly via police press conferences, there were long periods of coverage with little new to report. During much of that time, television—particularly the cable news networks—trotted out ex-cops and serial-killer experts as if those talking heads were being manufactured off-camera in some backroom.

University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato, who first applied the phrase "feeding frenzy" to media coverage, suggests that the national media overreacted to the story because it took place around Washington. "The media's right there, it was very convenient. It's a huge story, for sure. But did it deserve this much coverage all the time? What if it had taken place in Paducah, Ky.?"

George Mason University Professor and former CNN anchor Frank Sesno noted, "It would take tremendous courage to turn the page and tell us what else is happening in the world." Now that cable news has returned to covering other stories, he suggested, "someone should hang a sign that says, 'While you were out.'"

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project on Excellence in Journalism, who gave the performance of local television high grades, found the broadcast networks' coverage appropriate but was especially critical of cable. "The people in those newsrooms have made a business decision," he said.

"When you put on a panel of discussants who don't know anything, almost de facto, that's bad journalism. But, in this case, there was something even worse, dangerous and pathetic. In wartime, the press has restrictions regarding national security. The real danger here is when outside experts teach the killer how the police are trying to catch him."

Strangely, for all the time and space they had to fill, the media seemed to forget that there were witnesses who said they had seen a Chevrolet Caprice near the scene of one of the shootings.

In fact, according to both Washington-area daily newspapers, police—and, subsequently, the public—had been told about the suspicious Caprice following the early shootings in Aspen Hill, Md., Oct. 3.

The Washington Post
reported Oct. 13 that D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey had said authorities were looking for "an older- model, four-door burgundy Chevrolet Caprice with tinted windows that was seen leaving the area of the District shooting Oct. 3 with its lights off."

And the next day, The Washington Times
cited a CNN interview in which Moose acknowledged that police had been on the lookout for that Caprice. Moose told CNN's Wolf Blitzer there had been a law-enforcement focus on that car but "not a big push for public feedback about that."

Last Thursday, Blitzer replayed a portion of that interview, as if to underscore that the information about the Caprice (albeit the wrong color) had been out there for several weeks.

So during that time, Washingtonians were watching out for white vans, and television was spinning theories. The Los Angeles Times' Howard Rosenberg suggested it must be very crowded inside the mind of a serial sniper because "television's minions" spent three weeks rummaging through his brain. By Friday, numerous news reports noted how wrong many experts had been on such key factors as the suspects' race, occupation, geographic origins, family structure, age and, of course, the car.

Fox News Channel Vice President for Newsgathering John Stack said he likes the term "educated speculation" to describe the myriad of experts TV that were on display throughout the shooting spree and believes it's a valid way to program.

Stack acknowledged, however, that "we're under the spotlight for 24 hours. We're out there without a net, and we have to fill a huge broadcasting day." But, he added, "the cable medium is pretty open about itself. It's a little soon, but we'll be self-critical."

Sue Bunda, CNN senior vice president, noted that the story was in high demand and "24/7 news coverage by its nature is being there for the viewer whenever they want the news updated. We looked for an appropriate mix of analyst, criminologist, profiler … in order to explain, educate and clarify things as they unfolded. There is a danger [in giving out expert criminological information] if you don't think about it beforehand. We recognize that."

MSNBC anchor and editor-in-chief Jerry Nachman finds "an inverse ratio between the amount of official information and the impulse to speculate or suck your thumb on the air.

"One of the reasons there was so much of the latter was the remarkable lack of official information. We can be accused of being irresponsible," said Nachman, "but we had a huge role in catching this guy."