Local television news coverage of Joseph C. Palczynski took a strange turn late Friday night and yesterday. Suddenly, the fugitive believed to have killed four people in a crime spree that began March 7 was being treated with great deference, while virtually no mention of his alleged victims was made.
The reason: With the help of law enforcement authorities and the compliance of local television editors, Palczynski was essentially dictating how his hostage-taking situation would be covered.
The weird media loop went like this: Palczynski was watching himself on television. And when he saw something he didn't like, all he had to do was tell the police, who would then tell television reporters to stop. Almost always, it appeared, the offending coverage stopped.
Reporters were told by police that their stations must do nothing on air that would "agitate" Palczynski. Of course, only the police could say what would agitate him.
Even the imagery changed from what viewers had been seeing in previous days.
The wanted-poster, mug-shot pictures of Palczynski were seen less and less as the night wore on, replaced by a series of more flattering pictures of him in baseball caps striking poses similar to media images of country singer Garth Brooks.
Similarities between local coverage of the standoff and "Dog Day Afternoon," a 1975 film starring Al Pacino as a bank robber who takes hostages and plays out the crisis in reaction to the images of himself that he sees on television, were unmistakable.
Baltimore County police initially told reporters that they found out Palczynski was in an apartment in Dundalk holding at least three hostages when Palczynski called 911. That was the version all local stations reported Friday night as the hostage situation started to unfold about 9:30.
Then, about two hours later, police spokesman Bill Toohey requested that WBAL-TV (Channel 11) quickly interview him on-air so that he could issue a "correction." What Toohey wanted to tell WBAL viewers was that it was not Palczynski but rather someone from a nearby house who had called 911.
Toohey said the reason for the urgency to get on WBAL: "Palczynski said Channel 11 had been reporting it wrong."
Shortly before 2 a.m. yesterday,Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a Baltimore County police spokeswoman, went from news van to news van at the command center with an urgent request: Do not put Palczynski's father on the air. The father had contacted WJZ-TV (Channel 13) and wanted to go on the air to appeal to his son to surrender peacefully.
Warehime said police feared that seeing his father would "agitate" Palczynski. The stations complied with her request, though they let other friends and relatives of whom the police approved make similar requests on the air.
Police control and media compliance reached the point that Warehime was asking reporters and editors to "cue up" certain images, so the stations would have them ready to broadcast in case negotiators wanted Palczynski to see them on his television. One such instance involved a letter that had been written four days earlier by Palczynski's estranged girlfriend. The stations showed it repeatedly.
Warehime also asked all stations to stop showing photographs of the girlfriend and "the deceased," the four people Palczynski is believed to have killed.
"Hold back on the pictures," she said. "They are going to keep him on the edgy side."
Yesterday morning, as WBAL and WJZ used their normal news programming slots for wall-to-wall coverage of the standoff with police, the girlfriend was nowhere to be seen. The victims were shown only once, and that was in a replay of a report on two of them that WJZ had run earlier in the week.
On the other hand, after police indicated that Palczynski had responded somewhat favorably to seeing his grandmother on television, WJZ ran the interview several more times, proudly trumpeting it as an "exclusive."
The grandmother said that if Palczynski did kill anyone, it wasn't his fault but rather a result of "that sickness" he had. She stressed what a "good boy" he had been, taking her to the doctor and stopping by to ask her if she needed anything. She said she thought he would be "just fine" once "he gets his head together."
Jesse Jones of WMAR-TV (Channel 2) came the closest to telling viewers how skewed the coverage was when he told them at 11 a.m. yesterday that, "We also know Joe is watching television right now, and he might be watching us right as we speak. So, police have given us a number of things that we can say and that we cannot say so as not to agitate him."
As for Palczynski's viewing habits, WBAL appeared to be the station of choice for Palczynski and for police wanting to send him messages. At least that was the case Friday night.
When David Henninger, a lawyer who has represented Palczynski, was brought before reporters to plead for a peaceful surrender, police made sure that WBAL's cameras had a clear view of him.
"Look here. This is Channel 11's camera," reporter Jayne Miller shouted, and Henninger complied, looking toward the camera as he said, "Joe, this is David. Joe, I'm here for you. I need you to release the hostages and come out. I'm here for you. I'm waiting for you outside, Joe."