Media thrust into role of aiding police; Journalists weigh ethics of helping vs. objectivity

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 12A

When police negotiators tried to talk Patrick Murphy Jr. and Donald Newbury out of their hotel room Tuesday night, the men didn’t bargain for leniency. They bargained for airtime.

“Well, the way I see it, I had to make a statement,” Mr. Newbury said during a live interview the two men gave to Colorado Springs TV station KKTV before giving up their 42-day run. With their interviews early Wednesday, the two men joined a list of criminals – from David Koresh to Ted Kaczynski – who have used the platform of a police negotiation to expound their views.

KKTV anchor Eric Singer joined an equally long list of journalists who have been torn between covering the news and becoming part of it.

“This is the most important story I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined that I would play a role like this.”

The anchor said he did something he normally wouldn’t and let police guide his questioning of the two. Negotiators did not tell him what to ask but warned him not to bring up any issues that might anger the escapees. He avoided topics such as the killing of Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins because “those things were potential hot buttons. Talking about, or having them relive those situations perhaps could have done more harm than good,” Mr. Singer told NBC’s Today Show.

Being part of the story

For reporters trained as observers, not participants, cooperating with authorities can pose ethical dilemmas.

“You’re really weighing journalistic independence against the obligation of all of us as human beings to prevent profound harm,” said Dr. Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education center in St. Petersburg, Fla. “If KKTV believed the only reasonable alternative to prevent profound harm was to give over its airwaves to escaped convicts, that’s a choice they can make and defend.”

From the perspective of police, however, members of the media can be useful aides in their efforts to bring a peaceful end to crises.

“Ten minutes of air time is well worth a police officer’s, EMT person’s or a firefighter’s life,” said Peter DiVasto, a former hostage negotiation instructor for the U.S. Department of Energy.

It was about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday when Mr. Singer learned that the fugitives wanted to be interviewed before surrendering.

“Eric Singer, and I don’t mind saying it, was a major player” in the operation, said FBI Special Agent Greg Groves.

Dr. Steele defended the anchor’s choice of questions. “It wasn’t Eric Singer’s role to ask hard journalistic questions at that point. Law enforcement wasn’t asking for his reportorial expertise. They wanted assistance in resolving a dangerous situation.”

Because of their prominence, journalists are often thrown into the role of middlemen during a crisis.

In 1992, George Lott killed two lawyers and wounded three other people in the Tarrant County Courthouse. When he wanted to turn himself in, Mr. Lott went to the Dallas studios of WFAA (Channel 8), not police. Anchor Tracy Rowlett got an interview with Mr. Lott before police arrested him.

In 1995, the Unabomber, later identified as Mr. Kaczynski, announced he would cease his decade-long campaign of violence if news organizations published his 35,000-word Luddite manifesto. The New York Times and The Washington Post agreed in the name of public safety.

“I thought there was nothing wrong with publishing it,” said Richard Harwood, who was ombudsman for The Washington Post at the time. “We print propaganda all the time in the form of ads or statements from people. It was an independent decision we made that no one forced on us.”

Branch Davidian standoff

An instance of a Dallas news organization being thrust into a story came in 1993, during the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco.

“I was driving to Waco when I got a call on my cell phone from the station,” said Rick Ericson, then news director of radio station KRLD-AM (1080). “They said that a guy from Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had called and wanted us to help him out in their negotiations.”

Hours earlier, a shootout at the compound had left four ATF agents dead. Authorities had informed leader David Koresh that they wanted a cease-fire, but Mr. Koresh didn’t believe them. “He said he would believe it when he heard it on KRLD,” Mr. Ericson said.

At first, station officials were unsure how to proceed. “I said, ‘I’m a little leery about going from the role of being a journalist to a more active role like this.’ Then the agent said, ‘We’ve already got three, possibly four dead agents, and I don’t know how many they’ve got dead on their side. This could explode again. We believe that if you do this, it’ll help save lives.’

“I had no choice but to do it,” Mr. Ericson said.

Later, federal officials asked the station to broadcast an unedited 58-minute Koresh sermon. Station officials reluctantly agreed.

“An FBI agent said we’re getting a tape from [Mr. Koresh], and he says if KRLD plays it, he and everyone else will surrender peacefully,” Mr. Ericson said. “We thought it was in the public interest to play it.” But shortly after the broadcast, Mr. Koresh announced God had told him not to surrender.

Mr. Ericson, now senior communications director for the LeMaster Group public relations firm, said he would likely take the same actions today. “It is one of the most difficult decisions a news director could ever have to make.”