Study Claims Media Missed The Waco Boat

WACO just won't go away.

Even after two sets of congressional hearings, two thick-jacketed reports, and a barrage of books about the government raid at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the controversy is still churning. The latest point of contention: media coverage.

A just-released analysis by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that the media's coverage of this summer's Waco hearings focused primarily on assigning blame and the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. It charges that journalists ignored the larger civil liberties issues raised by the deadly raid.

The study comes at a time when Congress is gearing up for hearings on the shootout at the Randy Weaver compound at Ruby Ridge, Idaho - which will raise some of the same questions about the heavy-handedness of federal agents as Waco did.

This analysis underscores the difficulty the media faces in trying to provide thoughtful coverage of an event that some consider significant and others dismiss as political grandstanding.

''It was dispiriting to see how narrow the coverage was,'' says Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan and nonprofit media-research center in Washington. ''From following the news, you wouldn't know there were broader issues involved here like search and seizure, the role of the military in domestic law enforcement, and religious freedom.''

The study was commissioned by a collection of nonprofit groups, including Gun Owners of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Friends Service Committee. The study analyzed the coverage of the Waco hearings from July 19 through Aug. 2 on the ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS evening news, and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today.

The congressional hearings were to examine the controversies surrounding the Waco incident, from the first botched ATF raid in February 1993 to the FBI's final assault two months later.

But the study says that the media coverage focused primarily on who was to blame for the FBI's final assault, how the initial ATF raid was botched, and partisan bickering about the political motivations behind the hearings.

''The tone was unrelievedly negative, and once again, it was partly because the Democrats and Republicans were blaming each other,'' says Mr. Lichter, who argues that Congress ended up with worse press from the hearings than either the ATF or the FBI.

Of the 89 witnesses that testified, only six individuals dominated the coverage. Attorney General Janet Reno, who made the decision to go ahead with the final raid, topped the list with 43 mentions.

Kiri Jewell, the young woman who accused David Koresh of sexually molesting her, came in a distant second with 19 mentions

''The media let itself get caught up in the extraneous emotionality, which obscured the real issues, like what is the proper role of law enforcement in a democratic society,'' says Jon Snyder of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, another sponsor.

Mr. Snyder and others say they are particularly concerned about the growing power of federal law enforcement and of what they contend is an arrogance bred by the federal officials distance from local communities and lack of proper oversight from Washington. It was such arrogance, they argue, that prompted the ATF to disregard the Branch Davidian's basic rights to religious freedom, allegedly lie to get a search warrant, and finally, to overreact with military-style tactics.

''We believe our coverage was fair and appropriate,'' says Sandy Genelius, a spokeswoman for CBS Evening News.

''When important public events are covered as if they're sporting events, who's up and who's down, the public is deprived of the most important thing the media can provide,'' says David Kopel, at the Independence Institute, a libertarian-oriented think tank in Golden, Colo.

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