The news and non-news take a toll on viewers

October 24, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

If you wanted to maintain a shred of sanity yesterday as the hunt for the serial sniper intensified, the best thing to do was stay away from the TV.

Unfortunately, this was advice that I myself did not heed.

By the crack of dawn, with several cups of Folgers swishing around in my gut, I was already tuned to CNN with its comforting graphic: "SNIPER ON THE LOOSE."

Then again, this was no more jarring than the picture of an assault rifle that accompanied Fox 45's "SNIPER SEARCH" news update, where a Dr. Tyrone Powers, identified as a "former FBI agent," said the sniper was effectively telling all of us: "I'm in control of you."

Oh, it was a hell of a way to start the day.

For a brief moment, I considered going back to bed. But by now I was vibrating like a cymbal from all the coffee, so sleep was out of the question.

The vibrating became more pronounced a few minutes later when I clicked to ABC's Good Morning America and found Diane Sawyer interviewing Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah.

Hatch was apparently peddling a new book, a memoir of his years in public service, I think. Anyway, it had nothing to do with the sniper. Nevertheless, Sawyer felt compelled to ask him if his life had changed as a result of the shootings.

Looking grimly determined - or perhaps half-asleep - Sen. Hatch said no, he wasn't going to let this sniper scare him.

Conveniently, no one pointed out that Sen. Hatch probably has a pistol-packing bodyguard the size of a redwood who follows him everywhere, a limousine to whisk him about - this is not a guy who waits at a bus stop every morning - and a job at one of the most secure buildings in the world.

There were no startling new developments in the sniper case at this hour - this, of course, was a good thing, as it also meant there were no new shootings - so CNN's Paula Zahn was reduced to interviewing a Montgomery County parent identified only as "Bruce" about how life in suburbia had changed for moms and dads and kids.

"Bruce" had absolutely nothing interesting to say, but Zahn was determined to get every non-interesting tidbit she could out of him.

In conclusion - a conclusion that came after far too many eye-glazing minutes - Zahn asked "Bruce" if there was any message he wanted to impart to the sniper about the sniper's impact on "Bruce's" community.

"I think he's the ultimate coward," "Bruce" gamely replied. "I know he'll be caught sooner or later ... "

Yes, well, that was certainly ... encouraging.

By midmorning, CNN was so desperate to fill time that it went to a live shot from a diner in Silver Spring. There, reporter Kevin Sites declared solemnly that the diner's business was off in a big way because of fear of the sniper.

So naturally the first three patrons he interviewed appeared completely unworried about the sniper. Nope, each said, the sniper hasn't caused me to alter my daily routine.

In fact, one guy in a University of Maryland sweat shirt looked like he was more upset that his food was getting cold while he did the dopey interview.

At this point, if I were Kevin Sites, I would have quietly excused myself, gone outside and thrown myself in front of a speeding truck to avoid further embarrassment.

But if Sites was embarrassed, he sure did a great job of covering it up, which is something they must teach you the very first day you sign with a cable news outfit.

After that, I turned the TV off for a while in order to decompress, vowing also to switch to decaf the next time there was a need to monitor morning news shows.

But soon it was time for Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose's noon news conference from sniper task force headquarters in Rockville.

Oh, I guess I could have watched it on one of the local channels. But the prospect of seeing the great Wolf Blitzer in full dudgeon lured me right back to CNN.

Watching CNN is always a visual challenge, what with all the logos, graphics, split-screens and "crawls" it employs.

But this time it was even more surreal than usual. As Chief Moose, looking weary and frustrated, spoke to the media, stuff like this ran at the bottom of the screen: "Girl's Club hammered in Monday's Fox premiere ... MTV says Osbournes may be back next month ..."

Anyway, the news conference itself did little except confirm that Tuesday's shooting of the bus driver was linked to all the other sniper shootings.

After that it devolved into the predictable farce of shouted questions from reporters followed by evasive non-answers from the chief.

"It's not my nature to speculate," Chief Moose said at one point, effectively dooming his chances for a lucrative TV career as a "law enforcement expert" when he retires as a working cop.

Too bad. You don't see enough "experts" on the air these days.

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