World media spotlight `Washington in Angst'

Story's violence, mystery draw outlets' attention

October 10, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The headline in the German-language newspaper Die Welt could have easily run here. "Washington in Angst," it says, describing the sniper attacks during the past week that have sent a wave of fear over the capital region.

The British press is calling the shooter "The Beltway Killer." Articles about the attacks have run in such London newspapers as the Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian - even displayed prominently on the front page of The Times of London.

Around the globe - New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, China, South Africa - the search for the killer is grabbing attention. Even media outlets in Israel, where random violence is chillingly routine, are covering the story.

With each major development comes a new flurry of press. This week, Bild, the tabloid with the largest circulation in Europe, ran an article about Monday's shooting on its cover page. The German publication, after news that a 13-year-old boy had been critically wounded in front of his school in Bowie, wrote, "Now the Crazy Serial Killer is After Children."

Many foreign journalists, based here to cover national affairs, suddenly took a break from covering the U.S. threats of war with Iraq to jump on a story whose elements - a mysterious gunman, a growing list of victims, a wounded child, a Tarot card - are too sensational to ignore.

The news has taken on a slightly different spin abroad, where coverage has focused on the area's vulnerability to a burst of random violence despite the robust security in the capital.

"Police were hunting a `very calculating' killer who picked off his victims one by one, with single shots, in busy public places within ten miles of the White House," The Times of London wrote last week.

"Despite America's history of often brutal murders, [the] gunman has broken new ground by bringing the threat of random mayhem to the capital."

European newspapers have long written about American gun violence, in part because far stricter gun-control laws are favored there. But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some foreign journalists say, the interest in violence on U.S. soil and the ability of the police to hunt down suspected killers has grown.

"At least since Sept. 11, the [Washington area] was supposed to have the best police expertise, the best investigators, and for the past week there's been nothing but this strange Tarot card," said Jean-Jacques Mevel, Washington bureau chief of Le Figaro, a leading French newspaper, referring to a note scrawled on a fortune-telling card left at the scene of the Bowie shooting.

"For people living around Washington, obviously it's a shock by itself," Mevel said. "But for readers 5,000 miles away, Washington is associated with security, with good police, that kind of thing, so it's all the more surprising for my readers."

American news outlets have been more restrained than the foreign media in reporting about possible suspects. When police questioned a Rockville man, whom authorities later ruled out as a suspect, allegations about his possible link to a white supremacist group were downplayed in most U.S. coverage. The same cannot be said for some foreign news outlets.

"White Racist Hunted After Sniper Attacks," screamed a headline last weekend in the British newspaper the Independent, sensationalizing information from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that was leaked to the American news media last week.

Foreign newspapers are intrigued by the whodunit aspect of the sniper shootings. Now readers abroad are associating the words "Montgomery County" with mystery.

"It's the kind of thing the audience just thrives on - where is it going to happen next?" said Florence Rossignol, a producer and reporter for CTV, the Canadian television network. "It's just one of those very human-based, straightforward stories to report because anybody can understand how bad it is - you don't have any explaining to do. You go ahead with the facts, and that will speak for itself."

Feature Story News, an international broadcast news agency, has received requests for sniper-story packages from a half-dozen overseas clients, including the South African Broadcasting Corp., Radio Deutsche Welle in Germany, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Vatican radio in Rome.

"Arguably, the port story has a much greater impact on other parts of the world than the sniper shootings here, but it's not as gripping," said Steve Mort, the service's head of radio operations, referring to the lockout of West Coast longshoremen.

Israel is following the story despite its saturation with news of bloodshed. Yaron Deckel, a reporter for Israeli public TV and radio stations, has filed five reports on the Maryland manhunt.

"An hour after the boy was shot, I was already talking live to Israeli national radio," he said.

Not every foreign news organization is gripped by this tale. The Russian news agency Tass, for example, hasn't touched it, using its resources instead to cover the brewing U.S. conflict with Iraq.

But the story has pull. Adding to its allure: Some foreign reporters live in Montgomery County and say they feel the same anxiety described in their news reports. Juergen Koar, who lives in Potomac and writes for a German newspaper, is concerned for his daughter, a teacher at a school in Germantown.

"As a parent of a teacher in Montgomery County," he said, "you've got to be worried."

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