Media frenzy bolsters killers

October 30, 2002|By Cal Thomas

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Television coverage of the sniper(s) who shot 13 people was, please pardon the expression, overkill. When the few facts available were reported, television swarmed like bees, or more precisely like the pack rats that overwhelmed the Gary Condit story in the summer of 2001.

"Breaking speculation" is how Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher referred to the coverage. There were plenty of profilers on TV, so many in fact that one of them blurted out, "None of us really knows what he's talking about." But that didn't stop any of them from telling us what they thought, even though they had no basis for their opinions because they were not privy to what the police knew, which apparently wasn't much either.

One effect the profilers may have had was to help the snipers with their killing agenda. Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times chronicled the media cause and the sniper effect: "Robert Ressler, a former FBI profiler, suggests on CNN's Larry King Live that the sniper might travel as far south as Richmond, Va., `perhaps down to Ashland.' The next day, a man is shot leaving the Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland.

"Gregg McCarthy, a former FBI psychological profiler, tells CBS News the sniper has `a God complex.' ... Three days later, a 13-year-old boy is wounded after being dropped off at school. The sniper reportedly leaves behind a tarot card inscribed with the message: `Mister Policeman, I am God.'

"And Bo Dietl, a former New York detective who served as the model for the film One Tough Cop, tells CNN audiences the sniper is `a coward.' More shootings follow."

An anchor on Fox News Channel (where I also work) demonstrated bad taste and good marksmanship. She let viewers see how easy it is to blow someone's head off with a rifle and a scope. She repeatedly fired into the head and torso of a target shaped like a human.

Some anchors used the sniper to push for more gun laws, though the gunman violated numerous laws already in force. CNN's Judy Woodruff tossed softball questions to anti-gun activist Sarah Brady. Ms. Woodruff volunteered that Ms. Brady's cause is being overrun by the "powerful and relentless" forces of the pro-gun lobby.

In a later segment during which she interviewed Maryland gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Ms. Woodruff was confrontational. Mr. Ehrlich opposes new gun legislation. Frustrated by her line of questioning, he finally told her that Maryland already has 300 tough gun laws and yet it is "the third-most-violent state in the country."

NBC took one of those irritating and self-serving polls that produced the outcome it was looking for. Eighty-two percent said they worried that the sniper attacks might affect where they live, and nearly half feared for their safety. That the attacks were limited to within 100 miles of Washington, D.C., was not about to prevent NBC from adding to citizen terror, no matter how unwarranted.

There is probably no way to get the big media to act responsibly, especially when the ratings indicate large numbers of people tuned in to follow the story. The trouble is there often was no story. It was mostly a rehashing of earlier conjecture about what could come next. The few facts available were quickly relayed to the public, but none did much good until police finally issued a New Jersey license plate number. It was only then that the suspects were spotted, the police called and arrests made.

A Fox News-Opinion Dynamics Poll found 52 percent of the public believed coverage of the sniper was "sensationalized" (36 percent said it wasn't) and a whopping 67 percent believed the extensive media coverage "encouraged the sniper" (just 16 percent said the coverage helped police).

In these days of 24-hour news coverage and local news cut-ins, this blanket and often sensationalized coverage probably won't change as long as people watch. The problem is, it encourages the crazies and America-haters who are watching, too.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at

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