Media Plays Controversial Role In FBI-Cult Standoff in Waco
Critics ask whether news reports are delaying group's surrender
WACO, TEXAS — SUBFREEZING temperatures frosted law-enforcement agents and news crews over the weekend as the siege of a heavily armed religious sect dragged into its 16th day.
On Friday, authorities took into custody two adult Branch Davidian members. They were the first in a week to leave the sect's complex amid 77 acres of farmland east of Waco. Remaining inside were 88 adults and 17 children, by the sect's count. Twenty-one children and two adults had come out the week before.
The media continue to play a controversial role. Its involvement began when the Waco Tribune ran an expose on the sect and asked in an editorial: "How long before [officials] will act?"
The next day, learning that law officers were about to raid the compound, several reporters appeared on the scene. Their presence possibly helped to forewarn sect members. "We would very much like to know" how they found out, Dan Conroy, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agent, said Friday.
Once the standoff began, sect leader David Koresh telephoned TV and radio stations to air his views. After Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) negotiators cut his line, Mr. Koresh promised to surrender if Dallas radio station KRLD aired his message. The station did so at the FBI's request, but the sect stayed holed up.
Last week, KGBS, another Dallas radio station, aired remarks sympathetic to the sect and urged it to signal a response. Soon a sheet was hung from the compound's watchtower bearing a request to speak to the media.
The possibility that sect members' attention to broadcasts is delaying their surrender prompted a reporter Friday to ask if lawmen were considering jamming their reception. FBI agent Richard Swensen did not answer. However, lawmen did ask one station to stop filming with a night-vision lens that could reveal their movements to sect members inside.
Though they can call, lawmen have communicated with sect members via news conferences. At Friday's conference, for instance, Mr. Conroy urged sect member Paul Fatta to surrender. Mr. Fatta was out of town Feb. 28. He has given several interviews, including one that was televised last week after the ATF issued an arrest warrant for him on weapons charges. Asked if the ATF would subpoena news organizations to learn his whereabouts, Conroy said the bureau was considering all possibilities.
Meanwhile, media members encamped on soggy fields two miles from the compound lay down shipping palettes to use as boardwalks. TV reporters hid inside RVs from the arctic gusts.
The protraction of the standoff bothered reporters more than the weather, however. "It's becoming a humdrum story," says James McNabb, assignments manager at Austin TV station KXAN. With four people in Waco, costs are getting to be "more than I want to admit."
KRLD reporter Steve Coryell had kept a cellular phone line open for 11 hours at more than $1 per minute. Now he has a regular phone line coming to his parking space. The local phone company sent a crew to the media camp one day to see who was interested. "Everybody bit," Mr. Coryell says.
Phillip Hay, of the BBC's San Francisco bureau, said it was costing "a lot of money" to keep seven people in Waco and rent vehicles and TV equipment.
One of the BBC's reporters usually covers Northern Ireland, but he has been sent to New York as a change of pace. He covered the World Trade Center bombing before coming to Waco. "He really wanted to get a break from bombings, terrorism, and religious fanaticism," Mr. Hay said.