Talk show host Pat Mitchell, of WTTG-TV's "Panorama," was on the air, live, shortly after 12:30 noon yesterday, talking by telephone with Hanafi Muslim leader Hamass Abdul Khaalis, asking him why he was at B'nai B'rith headquarters in downtown Washington holding as many as 100 people hostage and why still others were being held at two other sites here.
Khaalis, sounding tired but attentive, was answering her questions and reciting his demands.
Suddenly Mitchell, getting orders from off-camera, cut Khaalis off the air, said goodbye and went to a telephone conversation with D.C. City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, incorrectly identified as a former hostage himself.
The station switchboard began to buzz with angry calls from mustified viewers. What had happened?"The interview was terminated at the request of police," said associate producer Olita Crawford later. But the order came from station general manager Bill Capenter, who said he'd been contacted by police about the conversation but that the request "reflected no pressure." He said he made the decision on his own.
Later, the station management decided not to rebroadcast any of the conversation on the station's 10 O'Clock News show for fear of "unbalancing" a tense situation.
The incident was a sign of the confusion and concern that marked the second day of coverage by the local broadcast media of a sensational and locally unprecedented news story, the taking of hostages at gunpoint at three separate locations by gunmen with lists of demands and access to the telephone. The telephone itself became a mass medium, an adjunct to radio and TV, and some reporters again found themselves becoming participants in the story they were often hard put to cover.
The distinction between reporter and participant was probably most blurred for WTOP's Max Robinson, who broadcast one of the earliest phone conversations with Khaalis on Wednesday ("I went to college, too, Max," Khaalis reprimanded Robinson at one point) and his familiarity with the Washington Hanafi Muslim community.
So by the end of the day, Robinson himself was being covered as he covered the story. Time and Newsweek sent photographers to take his picture, CBS news sent a film crew to watch him at work, he was contacted by a staff member of the network news magazine "Who's Who," and by a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting System. Newsday and The Wall Street Journal also talked to him.
On Wednesday, most local TV and radio stations were complying with police requests not to tie up telephone lines into the three hostage locations - the District Building, the Islamic Center and B'nai B'rith. But radio reporters from other cities were not observing or not aware of the request, and yesterday, stymied by the lack of otherwise available information, reporters took to their telephones in an effort to get new facts.
Paul Berg, a reporter for the University of Maryland radio station WMUC, phoned the Islamic Center at 2:40 p.m. and reached a gunman who called himself "a reasonable person" but warned. "I don't want people to mistake my kindness for weakness."
In search of an answer to an unanswered question, WHUR radio newsman Benjamin Dudley called the 16th Street headquarters of the Hanafi Muslims, asked to speak to Khaalis' son-in-law Abdul Azziz, was told that Azziz was not available and then asked the unidentified voice at the other end. "Why did they kill Maurice Williams?"
There was no answer. The unidentified voice hung up.
Maurice Williams was the 24-year-old WHUR reporter shot to death by gunmen at the District Building soon after the siege began on Wednesday.
Dudley placed the call again. And again. And each time the person answering the phone hung up. "We feel that members of their sect are responsible for Maurice's death and they owe us an answer," Dudley said later.
Clearly, this was a news story on which many reporters had difficulty maintaining objectivity.
WMAL-TV's Delores Handy did reach Azziz earlier in the day and conducted a 25-minute interview. But when she completed that call, she received one from D.C. police complaining that her conversation had tied up needed phone lines to the Muslim headquarters.
WTOP radio got a call in the morning from one of the hostages - former WTOP newsman Alan Grip, now an aide to Tucker and now a hostage in the District Building. Grip repeated a message from the Hanafi captors ("This is for Islam; this is not a personal grudge"), but when reporter Steve Thompson tried to question him. Grip was cut off. Questions about the condition of other hostages went without answers.
For all the action on the telephones, newsmen and crews stationed at the three hostage sites found themselves with very little to report on other than seemingly inactive buildings. Because ocrowds of onlookers mobbing the crowds of reporters, some news personnel couldn't even get access to food and logged up to 14 hours without eating.
At the District Building, others were surviving, they said, on (McDonald's) "quarter-pounders," catching naps on benches in the tiny park opposite the nearby National Theater, and complaining about the police and what they called a lock of information.
When a city official made an appearance outside the building, he would be pounced on with desperate pleas for information, like, "Did you hear any thumps from upstairs?" When no information was forthcoming, some reporters returned to the pastime of complaining [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]