Free press and copycat killers
WASHINGTON — The frustrating search for a sniper who has carried out a number of shootings in the Washington area so far has raised one of those classic cases of press rights vs. press responsibilities.
Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Chief Charles Moose has taken vehement exception to the breaking of a story on Channel 9 television in Washington about the discovery near one of the shooting sites of a fortune-telling tarot card known as the "death card," with the scrawled message, "Dear policemen, I am God."
Chief Moose's first problem is with his own investigators, as he acknowledged when he said that someone on his team had done something "very inappropriate" in releasing the information.
But he broadened his complaint to a denunciation of the news media for interfering with the investigation. "I beg the media to let us do our job," he said.
I am not a stranger to conflicts over secrecy vs. disclosure, having been denounced by a congressional committee in 1976 for the "reprehensible" act of disclosing an intelligence report that had been suppressed by the House.
But these times present a special kind of dilemma for the news media. The violence-prone in many cases get their kicks from their coverage, and others are spurred to copycatting. There may be reason, on occasion, to withhold investigative information.
News organizations cannot suspend their reporting in the interest of depriving criminals of ego satisfaction. But in this extraordinary time of violence, from Oklahoma City to Columbine High School, and now the Washington area, it becomes necessary to balance First Amendment rights with the requirements of community.
This may mean a less dramatic presentation than television is capable of. On occasion it may mean withholding a legitimate story on the plea of law-enforcement authorities.
It is unclear to me why Chief Moose was so exercised over the tarot card leak other than his general concern about maintaining control of investigative information, but I can imagine a news director checking with a police chief if there is reason to believe a story might be harmful.
I didn't always believe a journalist should ever withhold news. But the violent times we live in make me hesitate about absolutes.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.