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U.S.: Views Differ On Media Role In Sniper Case

  • Andrew Tully

Did the American news media help crack the Washington sniper case? Or did the media -- especially television and radio -- hurt the efforts of law-enforcement agencies by overly dramatizing the case? And are they now in the process of convicting the two suspects in the court of public opinion -- even before they face a judge and jury?

Washington, 28 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The three-week drama of the sniper who terrorized the suburbs around Washington, D.C., had several compelling subplots. They included the frustration of police at the lack of evidence, the crippling of the area's roads as police tried to trap the killer, and -- as often happens in America -- the role of the media.

At one point, the director of the investigation -- Charles Moose, a police chief in Maryland -- criticized a local television station and newspaper for publicizing a piece of evidence that he said should have been kept secret.

But the police chief also used the media as a way to communicate with the killers and issue information that eventually led to the arrest of the two men now suspected of killing 10 people and wounding three others.

For that, law enforcement and other officials thanked the media. Maryland Governor Parris Glendening says a debt of gratitude is owed to television and newspapers: "The tremendous cooperation from the media made a difference, and so thank you all, and -- [on behalf of] the citizens -- thank you for your help."

But the media -- particularly the 24-hour television news channels -- still face criticism for their handling of the story, especially for broadcasting interviews with reputed "experts" who may have misled the public by incorrectly speculating on the identities of the killers.

Many of these experts, usually former police officers, surmised that the killers were probably white. As it turned out, the two men arrested -- 41-year-old John Muhammad and 17-year-old John Malvo -- are black.

At least one analyst, writing in a newspaper, speculated that a terrorist cell could be responsible for the killings. There is no evidence of such a link.

Some critics say the media's questionable behavior did not stop with the arrests last week of Muhammad and Malvo. They say newspapers and television channels immediately began publicizing negative information about the suspects' backgrounds.

Alison Schafer, an assistant professor of communications at American University in Washington, says the news organizations embarrassed themselves in the sniper case. Schafer tells RFE/RL she believes television has been particularly inept. She says the print media are not as desperate to fill time as are the 24-hour television news channels: "The electronic media tends to be worse at this than the print media. There tends to be sort of a rush to judgment, and I think that that's what you're seeing here. There's such a strong demand for closure, it makes for good drama. Let's settle this right here and now on the airwaves and not really wait for the judicial system to kick in and do its thing."

Schafer recalls the case of Richard Jewell, who was briefly suspected of being responsible for the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta that killed one person and injured more than 100.

Jewell was first called a hero for moving people away from the bomb before it exploded. But news reports eventually identified him as a suspect in the case and publicized background information that made him appear guilty. He eventually was exonerated and threatened lawsuits against media outlets -- both broadcast and print -- for ruining his reputation. He settled out of court.

According to Schafer, there is a distinct parallel between Jewell's case and that of Muhammad and Malvo: "With Richard Jewell, he fit the profile. He was a fat loner who lived with his mother. Therefore, he was a murderer, a potential murderer. And it's the same with the [sniping suspects]: 'They're drifters, they're clearly bad guys, there's some weird relationship between the older one and the younger one. They must have done it.'"

Not all analysts agree the American news media are portraying the sniper suspects unfairly. One is Stephen Hess, who specializes in American government and culture at the Brookings Institution, an independent policy research center in Washington. Hess tells RFE/RL that the profiles of Muhammad that he has seen on television and read in newspapers have revealed that the suspect is far from fearsome: "Muhammad seems rather ordinary. Obviously, he's not ordinary at all. He's gone out and probably killed 10 people, but he doesn't appear to be a psychopath, hasn't done remarkably crazy things."

In fact, Hess says, he believes the media -- driven as they were by a dramatic story -- performed admirably under the circumstances: "I thought the media did just fine. Obviously it was a feeding frenzy. It's a hell of a big story. I thought the media acted with some real restraint."

A more important question is whether such exhaustive coverage of the two suspects -- negative or not -- could deny them a fair trial. Many analysts suggest the trial may have to be moved far away from where the sniper killings occurred.

But even if Muhammad and Malvo are tried in the states of Maryland or Virginia, where most of the killings took place, there is a good chance the two will be treated fairly. That's the opinion of Paul Rosenzweig, who specializes in legal issues at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington think tank.

Rosenzweig tells RFE/RL that if the lawyers and the judge handle the case properly, the jury will be able to decide guilt or innocence solely on the basis of physical evidence and testimony, disregarding what they may have seen on television or read in newspapers.

Rosenzweig says U.S. courts expect to be able to give fair trials to people accused of being connected to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, so why not to the Washington snipers?

"We anticipate [for example] being able to give fair trials to the people who are accused of being tied to Al-Qaeda. It takes hard work, to be sure, but a fair trial means a jury that's willing to base the decision on the evidence that's presented to them. It doesn't mean a jury of people who are 'tabula rasa' and have absolutely no idea what's happening around them in the world."

Despite her concern, Schafer of American University agrees. She says newspapers and television may use their pages and their programming to put Muhammad and Malvo on trial in the court of public opinion and find them guilty.

But Schafer adds that when the two suspects come before a real judge and jury, they will probably be treated fairly.

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