Taking Another Look

Local TV stations, trying to be good citizens, put themselves into the hostage situation they were covering

March 23, 2000|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TV CRITIC

An enormous audience, life-and-death drama and tremendous competitive pressure for live reports made the Joseph Palczynski hostage drama one of the biggest television news stories in Baltimore history.

And, while broadcast executives said repeatedly that they were being extremely cautious in their coverage, TV news -- especially WBAL-TV (Channel 11) and WJZ-TV (Channel 13) -- became a large part of that story.

Ultimately, the hostages came out safely. But in the name of exclusives and wall-to-wall live coverage, risks were taken and reporters were put in situations that could have been disastrous. During the ordeal, one reporter found herself suddenly interviewing Palczynski on the phone. Another correspondent had to decide on camera whether airing Lynn Whitehead's escape might alert the gunman.

"What this story became was a whole set of decisions that transcended the traditional para-meters," said Jay Newman, vice president and general manager of WJZ. "These were the larger issues that involve not just wearing your journalistic hat but also your citizens' hat, and they are the kind [of issues] that can really test you."

At first, on Friday night and Saturday, local TV news deferred to Baltimore County Police who acted like the broadcasts were only for Palczynski, whom they knew to be watching, rather than for the public.

Early Saturday morning, for example, Palczynski's former attorney, David Henninger, arrived in Dundalk, and police decided he should make an on-air plea to the gunman. Police spokesman Bill Toohey told Jayne Miller, WBAL's investigative reporter: "You have to go on the air now."

"I looked at him like, `What?' " Miller recalled yesterday. "And then all of sudden they're there with Henninger, and everyone's crowding around our camera. What are you going to do? We knew we were being used as a means of communication. We knew [Palczynski] enjoyed the coverage."

Few mentions of Palczynski's victims and his long history of domestic violence made it on the air Friday and Saturday, because police felt they might upset him. On Friday night, Cpl. Vickie Warehime told news crews in Dundalk to hold back on showing pictures of Palczynski's victims and his battered girl friend. "They are going to keep him on the edgy side," she said.

Stations helped

Toohey yesterday praised local TV saying, "I thought they were helpful. Sometimes, if we needed their help putting information out there or withholding something, they listened to our requests."

The stations began exhibiting more independence as the ordeal wore on Sunday, injecting themselves more and more into the story. Some of it seemed foolishly risky, like WJZ's Ron Matz and photographer getting so close to the hostage site that police had to shield them with their bodies when Palczynski started firing out the window.

But Katie Leahan, who had been anchoring WJZ's coverage since 7 a.m. Sunday, did what probably any reporter would do when, at 3 p.m. she saw an intern at the next desk answer a newsroom phone and say, "Joe who?"

"Palczynski answered with an expletive, and I grabbed the phone, and started talking to him in a calm, slow voice like you would a child. I knew as soon as I heard, `Joe who?' it was him," Leahan said yesterday.

Guidelines from the Radio and Television News Directors Association, which sets professional broadcast standards and includes all Baltimore stations, recommend against reporters talking to hostage takers, because "one wrong question or inappropriate word could jeopardize someone's life."

But Leahan, who clearly did nothing in her 20-minute conversation to inflame Palczynski, said yesterday that her success was not a matter of luck.

Ready to act

"I've been preparing for this for years, reading about criminals and how they act in this situation," she said. While working as an anchorwoman in Detroit, Leahan's co-anchor had a similar conversation with a hostage-taker and was later told by a negotiator that he had said and done virtually everything wrong.

"I decided then that, if I ever found myself in the same situation, I'd get it right," she said yesterday.

The call from Palczynski happened so fast, WJZ did not have time to record the gunman's voice. But a crew began filming her in the newsroom and Leahan repeated what she could of his conversation so as to get it on videotape.

General manager Newman said that the station -- after newsroom discussion, conversations with police, calls to executives at CBS which owns WJZ -- decided not to report or to air the call for fear that it would inflame Palczynski.

And early Monday morning, while checking her cell phone messages, WJZ reporter Suzanne Collins found a two-minute message from Palczynski, which the station also held off playing until shortly after 11: 05 p.m. Tuesday when police announced Palczynski was dead.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.