Role of media raises questions in standoff

March 02, 1993|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The role of the news media in the bloody attempt to arrest religious sect leader David Koresh near Waco, Texas, Sunday raises again questions about the responsibility of news operations and their relationship with law enforcement agencies.

The Waco Tribune-Herald began a seven-part series about the cult called the Branch Davidians Saturday, despite requests by federal authorities to delay the reports.

Newspaper and television reporters were waiting on the road outside the compound Sunday morning before law enforcement troops arrived, raising questions about who tipped off whom -- and who might have warned the heavily armed sect members inside the Mount Carmel compound.

KRLD/1080 news radio in Dallas agreed to air several times a brief message that had been ironed out between Mr. Koresh, who in 1984 changed his name from Vernon Howell, and the lead agency in the raid, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"They told us it would save lives," station news director Rick Ericson said yesterday.

The station also agreed to air pieces of Biblical scripture prepared by Mr. Koresh after being told that in exchange he would release children from the compound.

Then, about 9 p.m. Sunday, KRLD interviewed Mr. Koresh live -- a programming move made only after first having checked with federal agents to help determine whether the on-the-air interview was a wise decision.

"Thank God they said yes," said Charlie Seraphin, station manager. Mr. Seraphin had been talking with Mr. Koresh about 45 minutes off the air before the station manager sought the advice of federal agent Phil Chanowski about the on-the-air interview.

"I didn't know what their response was going to be," Mr. Seraphin said. "I just knew I wasn't going to put him on the air, and then find out I was responsible for three people getting killed or something like that."

Officials at CNN, the news network in Atlanta, said they had received a call from someone inside the compound about 5:15 p.m. CST Sunday, and after verifying the legitimacy of the call, later arranged a live interview with Mr. Koresh that lasted nearly 25 minutes.

CNN spokeswoman Alyssa Levy said the network used "various sources" to determine the credibility of the calls, but never sought the advice of officials who were negotiating with Mr. Koresh about whether to interview him live, Ms. Levy said.

The incidents all raise arguments over whom the news media must answer to and how closely aligned it should -- or shouldn't be -- with law enforcement officials.

"I would violate any ethical principle I can think of to save a life," said Don Gilmore, head of the Silha Center for Media Studies and Law at the University of Minnesota. "These are awfully, awfully tough calls. You've got people's lives in jeopardy."

At the same time, the situations throw into question whether news operations ought to avoid becoming part of a story, and whether they blur the line between reporting an event and becoming an actor on its stage, Mr. Gilmore and others said.

"Traditionally, we've always cooperated with law enforcement," Mr. Gilmore said. "But when do we cross over some imaginary line and really become an adjunct to law enforcement? I don't really know the answer."

Barbara Elmore, managing editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, said the paper has been besieged with requests from other news organizations for interviews, stories and photographs. Much of that interest has come because of the in-depth coverage by the paper of the Branch Davidians, but also because of criticism that the paper moved ahead of federal investigators.

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