- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

The competitive crush of print and broadcast media intent on the sniper story has come with a price.

In many cases, journalists are all dressed up with nowhere to go: There is limited or conflicting information and a public demanding answers.

News sense and credibility have suffered as the media seek the story any story. Tom Rosensteil of the Project for Excellence in Journalism has called CNN, MSNBC and Fox News "irresponsible" for offering speculation rather than straight-ahead news coverage.

The sniper story "could be told in a 20-minute span, yet news channels fill endless hours with it," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "They do it with conjecture from sources and much pomp."

No one wants to miss the ratings boat. And no one has.

Compared to the average numbers of viewers, ratings in the last week are up as much as 102 percent at Fox and 98 percent at MSNBC. Viewers have doubled at CNN.

"There's been a lot of complaining about the saturation coverage given to the killings," wrote the Chicago Sun Times' Roger Roeper yesterday. "But it would be more accurate to say that a small fraction of the media machine, i.e., the cable news channels, has gone all-sniper-all-the-time, while the mainstream outlets have treated it for what it is a huge and terrible domestic story that none of us will ever forget, but not World War III."

Still, both local and national news organizations have gotten edgy enough to violate basic journalistic ethics.

At 10:34 a.m. Tuesday, for example, CNN announced that bus driver Conrad Johnson had died of his wounds. Two Washington stations ABC affiliate WJLA-TV and Fox affiliate WTTG-TV went with the report, crafting their own versions.

Just minutes later, a Suburban Hospital spokeswoman asked reporters to hold the information because some of the victim's family members had not been notified.

One source blamed the gaffe on a misunderstanding with the hospital and technical difficulties.

Relations have been strained between law-enforcement officials and the press for weeks, going sour once Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose ceased to offer emotional vignettes and became a taciturn spokesman with little information to share.

Any commentary on the ongoing investigation, he has repeatedly advised the media gaggle, would be "inappropriate."

The police themselves soon became part of the story. Chief Moose was rumored to have "ghost writers" crafting his media presence, and reports surfaced about the rivalry between police forces.

CNN, for example, reported yesterday that Washington-area police were annoyed with "yokels from south of the border" Virginia police becoming involved in the case.

Even TV and radio traffic reporters joined the turmoil as police requested that no information be broadcast about the source of a 12-mile backup on the Beltway.

Broadcast and cable networks edged around the request by tapping into traffic cameras over the roadways and simply advising commuters to stay out of the affected areas.

Caution has even reached Hollywood.

The shootings have prompted CBS to consider postponing current production on its new drama "CSI: Miami," which features an episode on a forensics team studying the patterns of a shooter killing people from atop a building.

"This is one of those bizarre cases where art collides with real life," CBS spokesman Chris Ender told reporters yesterday. "No decision has been made on when the episode will be broadcast."

Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.

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