TV Can Help Nab D.C. Sniper


It's been more than three weeks since the Beltway sniper started randomly gunning down innocent people in a 50-mile swath surrounding the nation's capital.

Citizens in the suburban counties outside Washington, D.C., remain on high alert, fearful of what could happen next. They are not alone. The nation as a whole is wondering who this guy is — as the government asks if there is a link to the Al Qaeda terrorist network and sends investigators off to question detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And although the sniper remains unapprehended, the debate continues over whether television newsgathering organizations have overplayed this story of terror — which, so far, has resulted in nine deaths, plus two other casualties who remain in critical condition.

People want to help. But frustrated law-enforcement officials remain tight-lipped about what they know or don't know about the sniper, fearful that they will tip him off or cause him to strike again.

Unfortunately, police seem to be increasingly impatient with the journalists who are trying to gather and disseminate the facts to a public quaking in fear of the sniper's next strike.

That's a shame, because there is no medium more powerful than television in bringing people together during such a crisis. But even those in the business have some concerns over television's role here.

In our online poll this week, a surprising 60 percent of respondents said television coverage of this tragedy has been excessive, while about 30 percent said that there was not enough reporting.

What that really means is that only about 10 percent of those respondents thought that television is doing the right thing here. Frankly, I'm with the 30 percent who feel that there is not enough coverage. And that's not the fault of those newsgathering organizations that find the door shut at every turn they try to take.

One can only hope that law-enforcement officials have been so mum because they really do have information that will lure this sniper out of hiding. I have my own doubts about that. If officials really had some solid clues, why would they deploy military planes to hover over the area, like they did last week?

Sorry to say, this is going to be a tough case to solve and law enforcement agents need all the help they can get. That includes letting reporters do their jobs unimpeded.

As I steel myself for a trip to Washington today — to give our Operator of the Year Award to Cox Communications Inc. president and CEO Jim Robbins — I sure wish I knew a lot more than I presently do.

I'm not worried about my own trip to the area, one that only involves taking an Amtrak train in and out of the District. But what about all the folks who live there, have been living with this menace for weeks and have absolutely no new information?

All they know, at this writing, is that they should remain vigilant — and crouch down while filling up at the gas pump. And maybe they should be on the lookout for an olive-skinned man driving a white van. But now law-enforcement agents have pulled back on that description, too.

Now is the time to take off the shackles that burden newsgathering organizations, and to let them work side by side with the police. Everyone wants to help, and this animal must be stopped.