News report proves to be false claim

Attacks: WBFF's Jon Lieberman said Baltimoreans were being interrogated.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 14, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

At the top of WBFF-TV's late newscast Wednesday, Jon Lieberman appeared to report a big break in the story of the terrorist attacks: "Multiple people" from Baltimore were being interrogated that day by law enforcement officials "in connection with" the World Trade Center attacks, he said.

But city police say Lieberman, one of the station's newest and most promising reporters, was wrong.

Late in the newscast, citing "multiple sources," Lieberman said three men from Hampden were being interviewed by police and thought to be "mid-level players" in the terrorist campaign carried out Tuesday. "Vital information" linked to the attack inquiry was turned over to the FBI, he told viewers.

Ragina C. Averella, chief spokeswoman for the Baltimore Police Department, said officers have questioned many people based on tips from the public, and passed all resulting information to the FBI. But police did not consider the men - interviewed because a complainant said they seemed to be celebrating after Tuesday's tragedies - likely to have any link at all, she said.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in yesterday's Today section, the name of WBFF reporter Jon Leiberman was misspelled. The Sun regrets the error.

Because of the story, Averella spent much of late Wednesday and Thursday fielding urgent calls from senior city officials and Lieberman's journalistic competitors, she said.

"We're covering things - like the Oklahoma City bombing - that may not have remotely anything to do with the crime," said Pete Gulotta, spokesman for the Baltimore division of the FBI. "Like every field office, we're talking to a variety of people. Who's to say whether the people we're talking to have anything to do with it?"

Other local stations pursued Lieberman's scoop, then backed off.

"After some digging, we determined it wasn't the story that we were led to believe," said WBAL-TV news director Margaret Cronin. "We decided that it was not something we could put on the air."

Averella stressed that police departments across the country are similarly chasing hundreds of leads.

Reached yesterday, Lieberman noted he had said the men were not formally considered suspects, and said he stood by his story.

"Could we have put it into more context? Probably we could have," he said. "But it hadn't been previously reported ... that people [here] have been questioned or even talked to by law enforcement officials."

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