FBI agents combing the yard of a house in Tacoma, Wash., yesterday for clues that might lead them to a sniper blamed for 10 slayings in the Washington, D.C., area allowed their work be caught on camera by news helicopters, which beamed the action to cable news network viewers nationwide.
Some local law enforcement officials here were furious, saying the coverage could botch efforts to apprehend the killer.
One such law enforcement source told The Washington Post last night that telecasting the search in Tacoma alerted the very people police want to find, who by now "may be out on the highway leaving town."
Since the morning of Oct. 3, when the sniper systematically added four victims to the one killed the previous night, the horrendous shooting spree that "has pushed elections and Iraq to Page 2," as CNN's Larry King described it, has unfolded utterly on television.
"It's a movie, it's Hollywood," "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft said on King's show last night.
"These are things we see in movies and television shows that never happen in real life."
Events have led to some unflattering moments for the investigators and the news media, like when the press swarmed a gas station in a Richmond suburb to be on hand when authorities dragged a man out of a white van stopped at a pay phone. He turned out to be not the sniper but an illegal immigrant who now faces deportation.
And yesterday, during one of Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose's noon news briefings, a reporter asked Moose in an accusing tone why he was so polite when using television to send messages to the killer or killers.
Moose responded that his parents raised him to be polite under all circumstances, noting that he was even being polite in answering this question, which drew snickers from reporters gathered round.
Police weren't the only ones chastising the cable news networks. The media themselves have, since early in this investigation, embraced the "we're so bad" element of the story as one of its more interesting angles and have returned to that discussion during the many times over the past few days when they had no actual news to report but wanted to stay with a story that has greatly boosted their ratings.
Like last night, on MSNBC, when the camera was trained on the search in Tacoma while James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, could be heard chiding that very coverage: "He may leave . . . he may go underground. It's wonderful that we may have a lead here, but we may be making much more of it than it deserves, and it can have far more negative repercussions by having cameras and satellites and the helicopters watching this unfold."
Concurrently, the same self-flagellation was going on over on CNN:
"When you talk to law enforcement officials, do they worry that the press is helping, unwittingly helping the sniper?" CNN's Tucker Carlson asked the network's law enforcement analyst, Mike Brooks, who is a former FBI terrorism task force leader and D.C. police detective.
"They do worry a little bit about that, but right now, you know, [the FBI] is not making any effort to block the scene," he replied. "You know, they could put up tarps and those kind of things. So I don't think they're making any effort to hide what they're doing. But -- and when they come out and say exactly what they have found, if anything, they'll be very calculated and not giving up too much information to make sure that the shooter, who we know is listening to the press, that he is not given, he, she, they are not given too much information."
Sure enough, when an FBI spokeswoman staged a news conference at the scene in Tacoma minutes later, she said virtually nothing.
"Right now we're at the house," Melissa Mallon said, stating the obvious. "It's a consensual search, and we are conducting a search of the outside perimeter of the house."
Fox News Channel's Brian Wilson was much more forthcoming, reporting that the large tree stump that viewers had already seen authorities removing from the Tacoma yard had been "taken into custody" and would be flown here to the facilities of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where all the ballistics work on the case was being done. Back on CNN, Justice Department correspondent Kelli Arena warned viewers that the footage her network had been showing for some time "may be a dead end.
"It may not be but it may be. We have to let our viewers keep this in perspective."
"This could be much ado about nothing -- or major!" King chimed in.
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., broadcast stations ceded the Tacoma angle of this important local story to the cable news networks last night, sticking with regularly scheduled programming with only occasional news interruptions.
But not all of the authorities working this case find fault with the unending TV coverage. A federal law enforcement source involved in the sniper investigation quipped on Tuesday that because various local police agencies were not sharing information with the FBI, "I get all my news from CNN."
CBS is expected to postpone an episode of its new crime drama "CSI: Miami" because of similarities to the sniper shootings in the Washington area.
In the episode, a South Florida forensics team led by David Caruso studies crime scenes in the case of a sniper who has fatally shot people from atop a high-rise building.
The episode was first pitched in August, and the producers were writing it when "the situation in Washington began to unfold," CBS spokesman Chris Ender told The TV Column.
"This is a case where the art preceded the headline," Ender said. " 'CSI' doesn't do ripped-from-the-headlines-style shows; this is purely a coincidence."
The network decided to continue making the episode; it's in production now in Miami. It typically takes three to four weeks from production to broadcast on a special-effects-laden drama like "CSI: Miami."
That would put the episode squarely in the November sweeps. If the Washington area sniper has not been caught by then, it would leave CBS vulnerable to accusations it was trying to exploit the real-life drama during an important ratings period.
"At this point, for obvious reasons, we're not certain when it will air," Ender said.
This makes two years in a row that CBS has experienced a confluence of events involving its scripted series and real-life headlines. Last fall the network pulled the premiere episode of "The Agency," in which a terrorist planned to bomb a department store in London, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Later in the season, CBS had to pull another episode of the same CIA drama series because it involved an anthrax attack in Washington.
The Michigan Court of Appeals yesterday tossed out a jury's $29 million verdict against "The Jenny Jones Show," saying producers of the syndicated program had no legal responsibility to protect someone who was murdered after he revealed a gay crush during a show taping.
In a 2 to 1 ruling, the appeals court reversed the 1999 jury decision that had found Warner Bros. and Telepictures, which distributes the show, liable in the murder of Scott Amedure by another guest on that episode, Jonathan Schmitz. The episode never aired, except as part of news accounts of the subsequent murder trial.
Amedure family lawyer Geoffrey Fieger said he plans to appeal, the Associated Press reported.
Schmitz shot Amedure in 1995, shortly after both participated in the taping of an episode of the show about "secret admirers," during which Amedure revealed that he had a crush on Schmitz, who later said he was heterosexual. Three days later, Schmitz drove to Amedure's home outside Detroit and killed him with a shotgun blast; he's now serving 25 to 50 years in prison. Amedure's family sued Warner Bros. and Telepictures -- both owned by Time Warner, now AOL Time Warner.
The appellate court held that although the show "may be regarded as the epitome of bad taste and sensationalism," it had no duty to "anticipate and prevent the act of murder committed by Schmitz three days after leaving [the] studio and hundreds of miles away."
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.