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Sniper coverage showed cable news weaknesses

Nov 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

To the man with a hammer, the old adage goes, everything looks like a nail. As national cable news networks covered the Washington-area sniper case, the “experts” they turned to pounded their rhetorical hammers at length in every direction but the right one.
Every expert had his or her own theories of whom the attacker would be. And, as in a case of describing the arsonist before the fire is even out, the misses were as dramatic as they were unsurprising. Equally unsurprising, with ratings up, the news networks are likely to play the same game when the next big story breaks, with results that will be dismal for the nation and the concept of an informed public
CNN and the cable news channels that followed it revolutionized the way viewers get news in ways even those of us who were there at the creation could not have imagined. CNN was the first network to recognize the power of the satellite in bringing breaking information directly to viewers. Other cable channels followed, each with a canvas of 168 hours per week, every week, to create a landscape that each tries to sell to viewers as a comprehensive and useful view of the world.
Does blanket coverage of stories like the Washington sniper deliver that accurate and useful picture? Viewing the coverage of the Washington shooting attacks, Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said, “Cable networks have reached a new low,” adding that the coverage “was shamefully irresponsible.” He focused on what he called the “pseudo experts”: the army of trial lawyers, criminologists, retired FBI “profilers,” ballistics analysts, psychologists, and others who got airtime during the three weeks the shooter was at large.
For 15 years, with the exception of a brief and abortive effort by ABC and Westinghouse Broadcasting, CNN had the national cable news space mostly to itself. It became hugely profitable and deservedly successful after its exclusives in reporting the Gulf War brought it to the screens of every foreign ministry and trading firm, and to executives worldwide. That success contained the seeds of today’s excess: By putting all its airtime and resources into a single story, the channel was able to draw and hold viewers. Since news wasn’t happening every minute, outside “analysts” were called in to fill the empty hours. In the case of the Gulf War, they were retired military officers, who used maps, models and, mostly, continuous speculation to construct a sort of Maginot line against the enemy, silence.
By the mid-’90s, CNN was no longer alone: A couple of broadcasting heavyweights, NBC and News Corp., had joined the cable news fray with MSNBC and Fox News. The competition simply enhanced the trend. Through the news frenzies of the late ’90s and beyond-the death of Princess Diana, the impeachment of President Clinton, the Bush/Gore Florida standoff, the Chandra Levy case-the dynamic of the news networks remained the same: Ceaselessly blanket a single big story and don’t dare give a grazing viewer a reason to flick the remote, even if it means filling the dull spaces with speculation about the “breaking news” rather than showing some real news from somewhere else. (Networks extract higher rates from advertisers when that “breaking news” sign is up on the theory that more viewers are there.)
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks represented both a continuation and an interruption of this process-continuation because there had been no other story of such significance in the short history of cable news, and interruption because there was so much breaking news that analysis got shoved to the back bench for some time after the attacks. The performance of virtually all the cable networks, when apocalyptic events occurred blocks from their New York and Washington offices, was excellent.
But in the sniper case, the cable news time-fillers-whom Mr. Rosenstiel called “embarrassing experts”-particularly the so-called “profilers,” turned out to be stunningly inexpert. They were actually playing the odds (and their prejudices) and, as in the case of many losing bettors, betting their hunches betrayed them. The expertise of those who studied serial killers did not let them yield to the possibility that the Washington cases were not the work of a “conventional” serial killer.
Most of the profilers, psychologists and other cable talking heads dismissed the notion that the Washington killer might have connections to radical Islam, be it an organized al Qaeda cell or, as it now seems, an unconnected sympathizer. Few suggested it might be more than a lone individual. None I heard in three weeks of sporadic viewing of the cable networks suggested anything other than a white shooter, and none suggested that the shooter might not be a male.
Since ultimately it appears that it was the killers themselves who gave police the clue that led to their identification and capture by phone calls and letters left at the scenes of the crimes, we can assume that the cable networks were indeed providing information that revealed the police mind-set. But the police mind-set, blinded by a combination of playing the numbers and bizarre political correctness, was itself well off the mark.
By linking themselves so closely to that convenient conventional un-wisdom, the cable networks missed not only the fire, but the ashes-holding the police accountable for failing to think broadly enough in the search before the suspects literally gave their own identities away.
The lesson here for the cable networks is clear: Step back from prediction and stick to reporting. Avoid the tasteless and troubling “packaging” that characterized their coverage of the sniper case. Skip calling in so-called “experts” and use more journalistic skepticism when such cross your camera’s path. Especially beware of those who are willing to show up before a microphone at all hours of the day and night-their motives should be scrutinized before they are given a national platform. Keep an appropriate journalistic distance and your objectivity from police sources. And learn that the minority of viewers who select news channels over “CSI” are mostly capable of telling the difference.#
John Hillis is president of Equinox Media International, LLC, a media analysis and consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. He was founder, president and CEO of News Channel 8 in Washington from 1989 until September 2002.