(@LA.COM)
May 24, 1998
We’re From the Media, and We’re Here to Help 

Time once again for another (gasp!) critical look at the media.

Anyone who thinks I am some kind of bitter ex-media member with an ax to grind, think again.  I’m not.  Really.  You’ve got to believe me.  It’s just that I am a big believer in something I believe Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee is generally quoted as saying:  "With great power comes great responsibility."

My problem is with certain media members who seem unwilling or unable to use their powers for the greater good.  Instead, they seem to think of themselves as at least as important as the stories they cover, if not more so.  The next time you hear a reporter or anchor use the word "we’re," (as in, "we’re live…) think about it for a second.  Who is the "we" in question?  And are "they" really here to help you?

I am always a bit nauseated when I see some of the shenanigans that go on in the name of news.  Who can forget KCBS here in Los Angeles giving the family of a missing boy their own KCBS T-shirts and hats, then interviewing them while wearing this obscene endorsement for the supposedly objective station?  And of course, we are dealing with a TV news climate which recently led to the nationally-televised (on MSNBC) suicide of a man angry at his HMO.

It’s good to see that idiocy in TV news is not limited to Los Angeles, though.  Here’s an excerpt from a news item which recently appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Does it frighten you as much as it frightens me?



Police and media experts alike criticized the St. Petersburg Times and a local St. Petersburg radio station Wednesday for calling a gunman Hank Earl Carr during a hostage crisis in order to interview him.

As hostage negotiators, police in bulletproof vests and SWAT team members surrounded the building, Carr, who had already killed three officers, released his hostage and shot himself to death.  "To call the gunman at the gas station at the height of the crisis is totally unjustified and unethical," said Bob Steele, director of media ethics at the Poynter Institute.  "It's a stupid thing to do. There are lives at stake.  It was clear that the gunman was irrational.  It would be very easy to ask the wrong question or say something that would trigger the gunman to harm the hostage or himself or law enforcement officers."

Police spokesman Steve Cole shared Steele's sentiment.  "That's not a good idea to do that.  I was disturbed that the radio station made a call, got him on the line.   The police were trying to get on the phone with him."  During Carr's interview with WFLA radio, police were unable to contact that gunman and were forced to call the station and ask that it terminate contact with Carr.

While the Times defended its actions, WFLA news director Don Richards, who spoke with Carr for six minutes, said he was still thinking about it.

"We didn't tread on any areas which we thought could possibly endanger anyone.  This man wanted to tell his story.  We let him tell it.  And we let him know there was a way the whole situation could end peacefully." 


Unbelievable.

I mean, I know there’s a school of public journalism which advocates greater media involvement in the community, but I think this is a little much.

What’s next?  Reporters helping firefighters put out a three-alarm fire, then writing a glowing first-person account of how the reporter heroically battled the flames?

Or perhaps the reporter can take it upon his or herself to solve those crimes the police just can’t seem to crack.  A little investigation, a few key wiretaps, some surveillance, and voila!  Crime solved, story printed, journalist hailed!

Strangely, I think negotiating with a gunman who has killed three police officers is not a primary function of a media outlet.  It’s not just me, is it?

Don Richards, WFLA radio, listen up.  You are wrong.  The fact that you think nothing of this shows to me that you absolutely should not be entrusted with the power or authority to report on events in your community.  If you want to be the hero, save the day, make a difference, then join the police department.  But how dare you cross the line between objective reporter and active participant.  Shame on you.  Shame.


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©1998
Colin Campbell - jenolen@earthlink.net
Last updated May 24, 1998