What we need to know

Posted: Oct 18, 2002 12:00 AM
Television hates a vacuum. Folks in the business call that silent space when nobody’s talking “dead air”. They’ll do whatever it takes to fill that space because dead air causes viewers to change the channel. That explains a lot of the coverage of the Washington, D.C.-area killings: People want to know what’s going on, so local and national networks devote hours of coverage to the story. But while there’s plenty of time to fill, there’s not much new information. So stations turn to the “experts” -- psychologists, criminologists, profilers, retired federal agents and others have served up dozens of conflicting theories. Maybe there’s one shooter, or maybe two people are working together. Maybe the shooter is old, or maybe young. Maybe an expert sniper, or maybe a rank amateur. Terrorists are carrying out the attacks. Or children who’ve played too many video games. Or a disgruntled former cop or military man. The shooter is playing it fast and loose, and he’ll be captured soon. Or he’s being cautious and won’t ever be caught. The police know a lot and aren’t telling us. Or they don’t know anything so they can’t say much. Meanwhile, as these theories fly, reporters gather near the shooting sites in Maryland and Virginia, stand in the rain and file live reports, mostly to tell us that police are investigating the shootings. They also interview each other about the pace of the investigation and their own experiences as reporters covering the story. All these theories and interviews certainly prevent stations from running dead air. They probably haven’t caused any harm, but they probably haven’t aided the investigation, either. What might help? If the police released more information. Authorities make a point of saying as little as possible, so reporters come to depend heavily on leaks. On October 9, WUSA-TV and the Washington Post reported that a Tarot card had been found at the scene of one shooting. Someone had written, “Dear Policeman, I am God” on it. Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose erupted. “I have not received any message that the citizens of Montgomery County want Channel 9 or The Washington Post or any other media outlet to solve this case. If they do, then let me know. We will go and do other police work, and we will turn this case over to the media and you can solve it.” The Oct. 21 issue of Newsweek explained why the chief was so upset: “Moose had tried to establish trust with the killer, speaking to him in code during his ubiquitous briefings. ‘I hope to God that someday we’ll know why all of this occurred,’ he said, apparently hoping the shooter would get the picture.” While Moose was trying to send messages to the killer, he also was speaking to the rest of us. On Oct. 11 he told CNN, “I'm just trying to give information to the public so that they understand that we're working and that they understand that we're doing everything that we can to keep them safe.” We know that, Chief, and we appreciate your effort. But what Moose doesn’t seem to realize is that if the public knew more about the killer, we might provide clues that would help in the investigation. It has happened before. In 1996, federal authorities were pursuing the Unabomber, who had been sending bombs through the mail since 1978. The FBI was searching for a white male, thought to be living or working near San Francisco and driving an older car. He also was expected to be extremely neat. After the New York Times and Washington Post published the Unabomber’s 35,000-word manifesto in 1995, David Kaczynski turned in his brother Ted, who was tried and convicted. The Unabomber was indeed a white male, but he holed up in a shack in Montana, didn’t own a car, and lived in squalor. Chances are the feds would still be searching for the Unabomber without the tip from his brother. And that tip only came about only because of the media. What’s the breakout clue in the current series of shootings? The clue that would cause someone to say, “I know who the shooter is!” Who knows? Maybe there isn’t one. Or maybe authorities have it and are not releasing it. That’s why it’s time for the police to alter their policy and release everything they have. Sketches. Partial license plate numbers. Anything and everything. Getting information out is not, as Chief Moose said, letting the media solve the case. But it might allow the media -- and its millions of readers and listeners -- to help solve the case. And that’s in everyone’s best interest.