- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

On Media

The bustling press is determined to wrench a blockbuster story out of the Washington shootings even before there is one.
As entrepreneurs register the names "Beltway sniper" and "Washington shooter" as Web site names, journalists covet a conclusion. Many spent yesterday morning in fitful starts and stops, rehashing conflicting reports that suspects were in custody, cases linked, bullets matched.
The afternoon did not yield the moment of truth.
"I thank the media for carrying the message," a newly taciturn Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose told assembled reporters, acknowledging that the third communication between police and shooter had been sent out via the airwaves.
But the symbiotic relationship between police and the media was cut short. Shouting and interrupting one another, reporters were eager to connect the dots, solve the case and bring the story home that very moment.
Expressionless, Chief Moose would allow only that it was "inappropriate" to share information, though he understood "the energy and activity" of the press.
One historic fact had emerged: Journalists had become go-betweens in their own drama.
The collective press had ceased to be "analysts and watchdogs," CBS opined last night and was now relegated to a "delivery service" for police intent on reaching the killer.
And while law enforcement officials have adopted a kind of solemn civility after 20 days in the public hot seat, some of the "electronic journalism" had become shriller than ever.
"Sniper on the loose," CNN proclaimed yesterday in bold red graphics. MSNBC, meanwhile, was "Caught in the Crosshairs." Fox News went so far as to contact "Son of Sam" murderer David Berkowitz for his opinion.
Berkowitz, who has been jailed since 1978 in a New York prison, wrote back to Fox correspondent Rita Cosby with a little tutelage in restraint: "I really don't know what help I could actually be. Since these shootings began my life has become very difficult. I do not feel comfortable talking about this."
Nonstop coverage has become repetitive, featuring endless segments on car searches bolstered with expert (and some not so expert) opinions, rumination and file footage of police officers searching wooded areas.
Alarmist interviews with middle-aged women convinced that they themselves were in the sniper's cross hairs have proved a favorite. The Washington area is characterized as "under siege," causing some analysts to question not only whether it's theater or journalism, but where, exactly, was this area "under seige."
The New York Times characterized the sniper coverage as "reality television," while it was "saturation beyond saturation," according to talk-radio commentator Laura Ingraham on CNN.
"Is this whole event really about the media coverage itself? Is the sniper, whoever it is, rushing home to watch all this on television?" asked New York magazine's Michael Wolff.
Ratings, which are the point of it all, have zoomed.
Since Oct. 2, Fox News saw a 19 percent increase in viewers, averaging 767,000 viewers a day, according to Nielsen. CNN saw a 14 percent increase to 584,000 viewers and MSNBC a 21 percent rise to 287,000 viewers.
Viewers may be divided about what they see. A recent online poll from the broadcast journal Multichannel News found that 60 percent of respondents said TV coverage has been excessive, and about 30 percent said there was not enough reporting.
"One can only hope that law enforcement officials have been so mum because they really do have information that will lure this sniper out of hiding," noted Multichannel editor Marianne Paskowski. "This is going to be a tough case to solve, and law-enforcement agents need all the help they can get. That includes letting reporters do their jobs unimpeded."
Others are taking advantage of the shootings. Seven versions of the name "Beltway Sniper" have been registered as official Web sites, according to Register.com, the New York company that tracks such things. Two "Washington Sniper" sites have been registered as well.
"Beltway shooters," "Beltway crack shot" and "My Beltway sniper" are still available, they advise.
Are quickie books on the Washington shootings a possibility? Not yet, says the publisher of the first book published after September 11.
"This is a whole different scenario," said Jeff Schwaner, editor of Booksurge, a South Carolina publisher and distributor that produced the quick-turnaround book "9-11, 8:48 a.m." just 19 days after the terrorist attacks.
"After 9/11, we had huge a huge amount of very credible information to use," Mr. Schwaner said. "In the case of ongoing, unsolved spree killings, the best someone could do would be a book about the victims or perhaps witnesses. But there is so little out there."
New York-based Newmarket Press, which published a September 11 book four weeks after the events last year, has no eager authors.
"Nobody's stepped forward," a Newmarket Press spokeswoman said Friday. "Our most current upcoming book is a biography of Condoleezza Rice."
More than 300 books have been published about September 11.
The shootings have caused Hollywood to step gingerly, even in an age of quick turnaround. Last year, CBS signed author Norman Mailer to write a miniseries about CIA spy Robert P. Hanssen just 24 days after Hanssen was arrested on espionage charges.
No miniseries has surfaced on the shootings yet, though some insiders say producers are already considering fictional accounts of similar incidents.
In the meantime, 20th Century Fox has delayed the November release of its sniper thriller "Phone Booth" indefinitely and has dismantled its companion Web site.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide