We in the media have rights but not restraint


March 03, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

I turn on CNN to get an update on the situation in Waco, Texas, where four federal agents have been killed in a shoot-out with David Koresh and his religious cult.

The CNN anchorman is doing a live telephone interview.

"Mr. Koresh, how are you doing?" the anchor asks.

Just so-so, as it turns out.

Koresh has been shot, but he has energy enough to rave and ramble his way through several unique interpretations of the Bible.

"I hear that you want a larger audience for your religious beliefs," the CNN anchor says.

"In the book of Revelation in Chapter Four and Five, John witnesses that in the future God will sit on a throne and he'll have a book with seven seals in his right hand and he gives that book to The Lamb," Koresh replies.

"David," the anchor says, "I believe your followers believe you are The Lamb. Is that correct?"

Well, yes, it is.

And the interview goes on and on, CNN happy to provide Koresh with his "larger audience" just as long as its anchor can be on a first-name basis with The Lamb.

Never mind that CNN was giving this nut 20 minutes of live, unedited air time. What CNN was really doing was tying up the phone while federal agents were trying to negotiate with Koresh for his surrender.

CNN later did admit to a reporter that the feds "were upset that we had monopolized the phone line."

But, hey, who cares? Who cares about lives of men, women and children when TV wants an interview?

Nor was the CNN interview part of a deal whereby Koresh would surrender after getting his air time. Koresh just wanted to talk and CNN was happy to oblige.

Earl Casey, managing editor for domestic news at CNN, made the case for interviewing Koresh while the drama was still unfolding:

"If he's shot and might not be conscious too many more hours, any communication might be better than no communication at all." [Italics added.]

Any communication? Well, try this, Earl:

Koresh gets his live air time and he says: "I know that Bill Clinton watches CNN all the time and unless the president comes down to Waco and agrees that I am The Lamb, I will start killing one child every fifteen minutes starting at midnight tonight."

Would that communication be better than no communication?

A crazy example? Well, maybe. But crazy things sometimes do happen on TV. Take the case of Anthony Kiritsis.

In 1977, Anthony Kiritsis took a shotgun, wrapped a piece of wire around the trigger, trailed the wire down the barrel and formed a noose with it in front of the muzzle.

Then he slipped that noose around the head of Richard Hall, an Indianapolis mortgage executive, and marched Hall up to a press room full of reporters.

"Turn on your cameras!" Kiritsis shouted. "I want to talk on national television! I'm a goddam national hero and don't you forget it!"

In order to save Hall's life, TV gave Kiritsis his air time during which he raved, wept and shouted obscenities for 30 minutes before releasing Hall and surrendering.

(Kiritsis was later tried for kidnapping, found not guilty by reason of insanity, institutionalized for 11 years, and released in 1988. He has since filed 101 lawsuits against prosecutors, judges and state officials.)

And that is what you had to do in 1977 to get national air time if you were a nut: Wire a guy to a shotgun and threaten to kill him.

In 1993, all you have to do is ask and you shall receive.

"Well, you see, if I say I'm Christ, I just categorize myself with everybody else, don't I?" Koresh told CNN. "But the proof is if I can open up the seals or not. That's what God has put in record."

"I want to thank you for being forthcoming with me on the telephone as wounded as you are," the CNN anchor replied.

I am not saying that the media should not interview or cover crazy or evil or murderous people.

We have to. We have to accurately convey what is happening in our society.

But there is a time and a place for things. And the time and place to interview Koresh is not while the guns are still smoking and lives are still in danger.

As reporters, our freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution.

Our restraint we should volunteer.

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