Most debate surrounding the media frenzy over the Washington
snipers is either a question of quantity -- how much is too much? -- or a
question of quality -- how much speculation turned out to be wildly
These are worthy questions. No one can argue the amount of
coverage wasn't massive, and the 24-hour focus on the serial killings of 10
people sent waves of fear across a metropolitan area of more than 4.5
million people, who had to think twice before pumping gas.
But the fear justified the coverage. The killer was eluding
police and killing people in the most mundane tasks. His capture was an
urgent public matter. By contrast, our largest feeding frenzies of the last
five years have been anything but mundane: the untimely and avoidable
accidental deaths of People-magazine icons like Princess Diana and John F.
Kennedy Jr. To the extent that the media enlisted citizens in the manhunt,
the massive sniper-hunt coverage served a much larger purpose than the
manipulation of those overwrought funeral parades.
It's easy to denounce 24-hour TV speculation in a day with two
minutes of hard news. Naturally, most of the speculation was wrong. This is
a perpetual media problem, and it's apparently unavoidable: What does the
news chieftain do when the public's appetite for news is much greater than
the available supply? As a business, their only answer is to fill hour after
hour with a Psychic Friends Network of guessing experts (and please your
advertisers with skyrocketing ratings numbers). None of it did too much
public harm; PC-types will be relieved that the only demeaned stereotype was
the angry, white, military-trained male. No one will go looking for his
The most debatable aspect of sniper coverage came late in the
game: the rising specter of political correctness once the story went from a
harrowing mystery to a comforting capture. The suspects -- caught with the
smoking rifle -- were John Muhammad, a 41-year-old black man with affections
for the Nation of Islam (not to mention al-Qaeda) and John Lee Malvo, a
17-year-old black male Jamaican in the United States illegally.
In both print and broadcast, the national media avoided the
controversial labels of "Farrakhan fan" and "illegal alien." They were an
"Army veteran" and "a teenager," the Gulf War sharpshooter and his Jamaican
ward. Most ridiculously, the Miami Herald cast Mr. Muhammad as "an
'all-American' veteran of the Gulf War." Who can imagine the editor who
would allow into print the implication of an "all-American" fan of the World
Trade Center attacks?
Some reporters started pointing fingers at potential villains
who were not the snipers. Fox reported that a Reuters writer asked Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld if the Pentagon "felt responsible for creating the
alleged killer." (Yes, this from the same "news" agency that couldn't bear
to use the word "terrorist" to describe the September 11 attackers.) On NBC,
Tom Brokaw would not besmirch the Nation of Islam with a tie to the sniper,
but he made sure to report that the president of Bushmaster Firearms, who
made Mr. Muhammad's gun, was once a fundraiser for the George W. Bush
campaign in Maine.
Media watchers could also debate the surprisingly delayed wave
of pro-gun control stories. CNN's Judy Woodruff promised viewers of "Inside
Politics" that "I will ask gun control activist Sarah Brady why the sniper
spree has not prompted more politicians to talk up her cause." Should it
have? Woodruff asked her about the Maryland governor's race and the
shootings: "Have they in a way helped candidates like Kathleen Kennedy
Townsend?" Mrs. Brady insisted, "Nobody has capitalized on this."
But both the Brady group and the Townsend campaign have been
running a pile of ads against Republican Bob Ehrlich over his failure to
support ever more gun control, as if it would have stopped the snipers cold.
Woodruff wasn't asking if those ads were maybe tasteless or exploitative.
She wanted to know why there couldn't be more of the same against the
gun-rights lobby. They're "so powerful and so relentless ... how do you keep
going in this situation when even your own advocates are saying the climate
is just not right for this?"
When Woodruff interviewed Lt. Gov. Townsend, she kept hitting
the sympathy button by pounding away at the shootings of her father and
uncle -- twice in promotional announcements, and twice within the Townsend
interview. She did not ask Townsend why Maryland stopped doing background
checks on gun buyers from March to July of this year.
Journalists have a duty to uncover the latest information,
especially when its audience is feeling very literally under the gun. Their
sniper reporting kept the public aware, and ultimately helped nab the bad
guys. It's too bad that the relief at the sniper story's end had to be
matched by the tried and false conventions of liberal spin.