What's shocking is what no longer shocks us. We wake up in the morning now fully expecting to hear of a new tragedy, another heartless and seemingly random killing by a serial sniper terrorizing the Washington area. It is becoming a cruel, grim routine. We may actually, and appallingly, be getting used to it.
We're adapting to a new world of fear that began on Sept. 11, 2001.
One approaches the TV set timidly, with justifiable apprehension and dread, and yet there is really no choice but to turn it on and learn whether some new calamity has befallen the community. Yesterday the pattern continued. TV stations reported the shooting of a bus driver in Aspen Hill, struck down just before 6 a.m., apparently by the serial sniper.
The bus driver, however, died earlier on one channel than on others. One part of the ordeal has been a kind of quiet friction and continuing exchange of accusations between the media and law enforcement authorities as the killings go on. Now it was the media's turn to look culpable: CNN reported that the 13th shooting victim had died hours before it was made official by Chief Charles Moose of the Montgomery County Police Department.
In another of his many news briefings (scheduled for noon and delayed by 30 minutes), Moose identified the sniper's victim as Conrad Johnson and said the attack had indeed been fatal. His age had been reported as 40 all morning, but he was now said to have been 35.
Washington's local stations had abided by the rules and withheld the information that Johnson had died until Moose appeared. At midmorning, Leon Harris, the CNN anchor on duty, seemed to be expressing corporate remorse that CNN had, in effect, broken a rule, reporting the death (without using Johnson's name) before all members of his family had been notified.
"We are taking every precaution to show as much sensitivity as we possibly can," Harris told viewers shortly after 10:30 a.m. How much sensitivity was that? Apparently not lots. "We offer our sympathies . . . and apologies" to the victim's family, Harris said. But then at noon, CNN aired footage of bereaved family members outside the hospital, and reporter Bill Delany told viewers that a woman who'd been seen wandering around the hospital parking lot, weeping, "may have been the victim's mother."
When WRC anchors Pat Lawson Muse and Jim Handly signed off at 10:57 a.m. (coverage resumed at noon), they indicated to viewers that the bus driver was still alive, perhaps fighting for his life inside the hospital. Handly said the bus driver was "last reported in critical condition."
Muse added that she and Handly hoped he would survive.
WRC News Director Bob Long said later yesterday from his office that he regretted the apparent misinformation but that Muse had not been told of Johnson's death. What Handly said was technically correct; on most stations, it was last reported that his condition was critical.
"Some social worker at the hospital was overheard by a reporter saying the man had died," Long said. "It was not an official spokesman. Whoever it was tried to backpedal, understandably." CNN went with the overheard report and other cable news networks picked it up. It was bad form.
In general, Washington's local stations have been more cautious and arguably more responsible in covering the sniper story than have the cable news networks, which are hotly competitive and not above sensationalizing the story in the pursuit of a ratings advantage. Each network, for instance, has its resident criminal profiler, psychiatrist or crime expert weighing in on the case and how the police ought to go about capturing the sniper.
Among the most outspoken, and indeed most compelling, is Pat Brown, a criminal profiler getting a great deal of air time on MSNBC, one of NBC's two cable news channels. Yesterday Brown declared that Moose should step out of the spotlight and stop doing the news briefings because the sniper was viewing him as an adversary in a macabre cat-and-mouse exercise.
Moose "needs to stop playing this guy's nemesis," Brown said. "It's just urging this guy on." She said police should stop trying to reason with a patently unreasonable force: "Psychopaths don't care about other people, so it's hard to convince them to stop killing them when they don't care to begin with."
WRC's Long said he has refrained from putting such alleged experts on the air. "We don't use profilers, swamis or tarot card readers," he said. "We don't speculate. It's not our business to project."
But Moose put local and national media in a strange position on Monday when he essentially commandeered them as a conduit for his own communication to the sniper. This followed the discovery of a written message that may or may not have been the sniper's handiwork and a phone call that Moose complained was "unclear" but might have been another of the sniper's attempts to open a "dialogue."
At yesterday's news briefing, Moose was asked whether he had any more messages he wanted the press to carry to the sniper. "At this point I do not have any requests for you as the media to take forth any message," he said. Moose seemed visibly and understandably stressed and exhausted.
On MSNBC Monday, Washington Post reporter Hamil Harris also sounded stressed -- and exasperated -- by the lack of hard information coming from the authorities and by the attempt to use the mass media as messengers for the police department.
"It's kind of bizarre," Harris said. "It's almost like a new chapter to be written in journalism books as to the role of the press in . . . an investigation. . . . What we have is a situation where we are party to a communication from somebody in TV land. Either he's a sniper or a suspect or whatever."
It gets more bizarre still. New York tabloids are reporting that those messages that may or may not be from the sniper have included demands for large sums of money tied to threats to harm schoolchildren. It's essentially rumor -- unconfirmed gossip.
To report or not to report? MSNBC decided to have it both ways yesterday. The network didn't pass along the rumors as news exactly, but a correspondent held up the front pages of the New York Daily News and the New York Post and described the stories behind their hysterical headlines about alleged sniper demands. Late in the day, however, the rumors grew largely true, when Moose held yet another news conference and revealed that the sniper, in one of his communications, had threatened the children of the Washington area.
What the sniper has managed to do, in addition to terrify a community, is to shake people's faith in both the police and the media, two central institutions. A reporter at yesterday's Moose briefing, for instance, complained that police had allowed the press, and others, too much access to the bus near which the driver was shot.
At times, the story seems to have brought out the worst in everybody -- not so much a "media circus" as a media circus of horrors.
Although some law enforcement spokesmen initially taunted the sniper by calling him a "coward," they quickly changed tactics, even to the point of all but complimenting the killer on his marksmanship. The experts on the cable networks are under no such strictures. On CNN yesterday, Bo Dietl, a former detective for the New York Police Department, branded the sniper a "homicidal maniac" and "a damned psychopathic coward" and indicated police have been wrong to treat him with kid gloves.
Brown, the profiler seen daily on MSNBC, said Monday that the police should be giving the public more information about suspects, clues and evidence so people can help in the capture of the sniper. "They're not playing by their rules," she said of the police. "They're playing by the sniper's rules. That's a foolish idea. You never play by the rules of a serial killer, because you lose."
Are the cable networks overcovering the story? Are they playing with fire by airing remarks that might even inflame the sniper? It's a national story now, and a big one, and the ratings for news channels have shot up the way they always do in a crisis. But lives are at stake, and the cumulative effect of the coverage -- and of each network trying to out-shout the others -- suggests a modern tower of Babel with potentially catastrophic consequences.
There hardly seems time now to worry about long-term effects; the short-term concerns are so urgent. But in the aftermath of the sniper's reign -- however long it turns out to be -- and of the horrific terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, and considering the continuing terrorist alarms sounded by the Bush administration, it isn't hard to envision an American public more amenable than at any time since World War II to sacrificing civil liberties for the sake of security -- or even a comforting false sense of it.
The popularity of white vans might also plummet drastically.
Like its competitors, CNN keeps up a steady stream of news about the sniper, even when there is no news about the sniper. But the network finds time for other news, too -- or, more accurately, it finds space. Its news ticker continues to race rapidly along the bottom of the screen, spewing out tidbits of national, economic and even show business news.
Thus while grim-faced anchors and reporters talked of the sniper and his latest victim yesterday, the news ticker informed viewers of such developments as the signing of "New Edition minus Bobby Brown" by "P. Diddy's record company, Bad Boy Records." It was also reported that comedian Don Rickles has been named honorary captain of the University of Arizona hockey team.
Life, or television's perversely skewed version of it, goes on.
including those of MSNBC's profiler Pat Brown.