While the most massive police manhunt in New York history ended with the arrest late Wednesday of the man authorities say is the "Son of Sam," the controversy over the drumbeat of news coverage surrounding the case is just now coming to a head.
Falling into the usually fallow news period of the August dog days, word of the arrest of 24-year-old David Berkowitz as the suspected .44-cal. killer who terrorized New York City for more than a year dominated headlines not only here but around the world.
London's sensational tabloids gave the story larger headlines than Queen Elizabeth's controversial visit to violence-wracked Northern Ireland. Even the Vatican's ultraconservative daily had a page-one report about "Figlio di Sam."
In New York City, newsstands reported the greatest demand for papers since the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Enlarged press runs of the city's three dailies were quickly snapped up.
The New York Post Thursday sold more than 1 million copies - about 500,000 more than usual - with editions that blared the one-word headline "Caught!" in 2 1/2-inch crimson type over a picture of Berkowitz.
The Daily News, the country's largest circulation daily, increased its 1.9 million press run by 400,000 copies only to find this was inadequate. And copies of The New York Times, which increased its run by about 50,000 also quickly disappeared.
On television, the local and network newscasts blanketed the story. ABC took up nearly 19 minutes of its halfhour show Thursday night with "Son of Sam" stories. And Barbara Walters anchored her portion of the program from New York police headquarters.
But amidst the public's apparently insatiable desire for news about Berkowitz and what makes him tick, some serious questions are being asked.
Did the press, particularly the city's two tabloid newspapers, the News and the Post, in competing for sensational new angles on the story, egg on the killer and needlessly heighten the atmosphere of fear that pervaded the city prior to the suspect's capture? Or did the stories help to smoke him out?
And now that suspect Berkowitz is in custody, the question has been raised as to whether the unprecedented volume of publicity makes a fair trial possible.
Probably the most pointed criticism of the press coverage in the case voiced so far is in the current issue of the New Town" section opens with a comment on the "Son of Sam" case that charges "just about everything done by the press here - especially by the Post and the News - has made a bad situation worse for the residents of New York."
It goes on to say that "by transforming a person who has killed or wounded 13 people into a seemingly omnipotent monster stalking the city, the press has created the kind of public and official hysteria that may cause the death of innocent suspects and will make a fair trial of an accused killer nearly impossible.
The comment was written prior to Berkowitz' arrest. But New Yorker editor William Shawn said today that the magazine stands by the piece, adding that the coverage since the suspect's apprehension has "been somewhat worse." Shawn said the press has been "retroactively romanticizing the criminal, in this case a man who is probably insane," and this "has an effect on the future because it stirs up other people who are deranged."
Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, who wrote a number of columns on "Son of Sam" and was a recipient of a widely publicized letter from the killer in June that the News published, was singled out in the New Yorker for criticism.
Breslin, responding in a column in Thursday's News, disclosed that the New York police wanted the letter released to the public to induce the killer to write again and reveal more clues to his identity.
And Breslin said he also consulted with top police officials and a criminal psychiatrist recommended by them before carefully framing a response to the letter in a published column.
"I was quite outraged by the New Yorker piece," Daily News editor Michael J. O'Neill said in an interview. "In the case of the 'Son of Sam' I would not argue that everything we did was exactly the way I would have liked it. Nevertheless the fact is that we very carefully consulted with the authorities almost at every step along the way on whether reporting certain facts and certain parts of the investigation would help or hurt the work of the police.
In fact, it has been disclosed that the News learned that police had obtained a set of latent fingerprints from a letter allegedly sent by "Son of Sam" but, at the request of the police, did not print this information because police wanted to use the prints to sort out possible suspects. The Times learned about the same information later and also voluntarily withheld it from publication. Both newspapers were praised by Police Commissioner Michael J. Codd for their restraint.
As to accounts that the Daily News and most other news organizations have published or aired based on what Berkowitz allegedly told police during his interrogation, O'Neill said he "personally had a very detailed conversation with a key authority to reassure myself that if we carried a story saying this fellow had confessed, that printing that fact would not in any way interfere with the process of justice."
"Nevertheless," he added, "if I had my druthers, and we were living in a completely noncompetitive world. I find myself reluctant to carry that.
But O'Neill works in a very competitive journalistic environment, particularly since Australian press tycoon Rupert Murboch earlier this year purchased the New York Post, giving it the more sensational coloration of papers he owns in England and Australia and giving the Daily News a run for its money.
The Post, which was splashing the "Son of Sam" story on its front page every day since the July 31 killing of Stacy Moskowitz, the last fatality, has come in for the most criticism of any paper for its coverage.
"Murdoch played this like Australian Fleet Street - as cheap as he possibly could with as much publicity as he possibly could," said one New York newspaper executive who declined to be named.
Murdoch was unavailable for comment. But Post managing editor Robert Spitzler said he had "no reason to be embarrassed I have no reason to be apologetic. Major stories are meant to be covered with all of the resources and energies at your disposal. If it offends the delicate sensibilities of the Algonquin crowd, so be it." (He was referring to the Algonquin Hotel, a favorite watering hole for the literary set, located near the offices of the New Yorker.
Spitzler said "sales have been very strong" for the Post during the period of its intensive "Son of Sam" coverage. Asked if the story was particularly suited to the Post since Murdoch acquired the paper, Spitzler replied, "It's up any New York newspaper's alley - certainly up any tabloid's alley."
A. M. Rosenthal, executive editor of The New York Times, the city's major nontabloid newspaper, said he did not "want to sit in judgment on anybody else" but had some "serious questions" about how the press has covered the case.
"One concerns the dangers and responsibilities of a newspaper or television station which tries to get into a relationship with a murderer by appealing to him directly," Rosenthal said. "The consequence of that puts the newspaper or television station into the story as an actor. The second involves the fact that while it's not our job to conceal terrible things from the public, we have to face in our conscience the question of whether we are reporting these things or capitalizing on them."