I remember once staying at a hotel in a large southern city where, during the first few weeks of operation, several persons jumped to their deaths from interior balconies. Apart from the balconies being high and being there, no one had a better explanation for the run of suicides than that, after the first, all were "copycats."
The incident comes to mind because of questions arising now from the Tylenol deaths: has the news coverage of this nightmare inspired "copycats," those who have gone beyond to contaminate other products, including foodstuffs? Would less voluminous coverage have inhibited one from aping the Tylenol script? Unlike other carefully planned crimes -- hijackings, political terrorism- - in which responsibility is claimed, here we know neither who is guilty nor what the motivation was. Hence, no one, including news editors, gives a self-assumed "no" to the questions. Everyone remembers a 15-year-old Florida youth convicted of murdering a neighbor several years ago telling police he learned from television.
A conclusive view is that of Johns Hopkins University forensic psychiatrist Jonas R. Rappeport who said, "Experience with hijackers, hostage-takers, Halloween candy-adulterators and national-figure assaulters makes it easy to predict that excess publicity will produce a rash of such incidents." Dr. Rappeport, who has examined John W. Hinckley, among other would-be assassins, adds, "There is no doubt in my mind that many lonely, angry and frustrated souls obtain their ideas from the excess publicity received by others."
Deputy Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Mark Novitch, says it is "hard to know whether publicity inspires others." The press should retain a "skepticism" thereby avoiding false alarms. He was troubled with the attention given to the reopening of the six-month-old suicide of a University of Pennsylvania student after contaminated Tylenol was found in the student's apartment. The death was reconfirmed a suicide, not death by contaminated Tylenol -- but not before giving an impression that a nationwide Tylenol plague was threatening.
Admitting to only "speculative" views, psychiatrist Dr. James L. Foy, of Georgetown University, says, "Clarity is difficult to come by." Product tampering, he observes, is nearly always anonymous, unlike those -- "terrorism, for example" -- where someone is anxious to declare who did it. Thus, it is not possible to know how many "copycat" cases there might be. Some that bear the appearance prove misleading or outright false. He says there's little question that television carries greater impact than newspapers. "Print does tend to move the story inside; TV is more likely to keep it up front."
Dr. Robert Kupperman, executive director of the Georgetown Center for Strategic International Studies, told The Post, "The poisoner can get a sense of nationwide gratification anonymously, vicariously, without having to face his or her crimes, using television to terrorize the nation."
With few exceptions the press gets good marks from those who dealt with it, particularly from Lawrence G. Foster, vice president for public relations at Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol's parent company, and from Paul Zemitsch, director for policy for the Illinois attorney general's investigative task force.
"Seeing what we were up against," said Mr. Foster, the press recognized also "it could be their problem." Some excesses developed in reaching for "new leads." Without identifying the newspaper, Mr. Foster described a story that detailed how to repackage a product after contaminating it, complete with visual aids.
Mr. Zemitsch credits the press initially with "saving lives with accurate, timely reports." National reporters apparently were more resistant to rumors about suspects, which developed in the Chicago area. It is known there were distortions and fabrications, more often broadcast than printed. Neither man would venture an opinion whether a "me-too" act should be attributed to media coverage.
To date, The Post has carried some 45 pieces of this unfinished story. Except for one looking at conventional uses of the poisons, none constitutes a how-to- do-it kit. Nowhere in this or other media is there proof the Tylenol crime triggered others. But then, you have to say the same to the contrary question.