Most debate surrounding the media frenzy over the Washington snipers is either a question of quantity - how much is too much? - or a question of quality - how much speculation turned out to be wildly incorrect?
These are worthy questions. No one can argue the amount of coverage wasn't massive, and the 24-hour focus on the serial killings of ten people sent waves of fear across a metropolitan area of more than 4.5 million people who had to think twice before pumping gas.
But the fear justified the coverage. The killer was eluding police and killing people in the most mundane tasks. His capture was an urgent public matter. By contrast, our largest feeding frenzies of the last five years have been anything but mundane: The untimely and avoidable accidental deaths of People-magazine icons like Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr. To the extent that the media enlisted citizens in the manhunt, the massive sniper-hunt coverage served a much larger purpose than the manipulation of those overwrought funeral parades.
It's easy to denounce 24-hour TV speculation in a day with two minutes of hard news. Naturally, most of the speculation was wrong. This is a perpetual media problem and apparently unavoidable: What does the news chieftain do when the public's appetite for news is much greater than the available supply? As a business, their only answer is to fill hour after hour with a Psychic Friends Network of guessing experts (and please your advertisers with skyrocketing ratings numbers). None of it did too much public harm; PC-types will be relieved that the only demeaned stereotype was the angry, white, military-trained male. No one will go looking for his anti-defamation group.
The most debatable aspect of sniper coverage came late in the game: The rising specter of political correctness once the story went from a harrowing mystery to a comforting capture. The suspects - caught with the smoking rifle - were John Muhammad, a 41-year-old black man with affections for the Nation of Islam (not to mention al-Qaeda) and John Lee Malvo, a 17-year-old black male Jamaican in the U.S. illegally.
In both print and broadcast, the national media avoided the controversial labels of "Farrakhan fan" and "illegal alien." They were an "Army veteran" and "a teenager," the Gulf War sharpshooter and his Jamaican ward. Most ridiculously, the Miami Herald cast Mr. Muhammad as "an 'all-American' veteran of the Gulf War." Who can imagine the editor who would allow into print the implication of an "all-American" fan of the World Trade Center attacks?
Some reporters started pointing fingers at potential villains who were not the snipers. Fox reported that a Reuters writer asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld if the Pentagon "felt responsible for creating the alleged killer." (Yes, this from the same "news" agency that couldn't bear to use the word "terrorist" to describe the September 11 attackers.) On NBC, Tom Brokaw would not besmirch the Nation of Islam with a tie to the sniper, but he made sure to report that the president of Bushmaster Firearms, who made Mr. Muhammad's gun, was once a fundraiser for the George W. Bush campaign in Maine.
Media watchers could also debate the surprisingly delayed wave of pro-gun control stories. CNN's Judy Woodruff promised viewers of Inside Politics that "I will ask gun control activist Sarah Brady why the sniper spree has not prompted more politicians to talk up her cause." Should it have? Woodruff asked her about the Maryland governor's race and the shootings: "Have they in a way helped candidates like Kathleen Kennedy Townsend?" Mrs. Brady insisted, "Nobody has capitalized on this."
But both the Brady group and the Townsend campaign have been running a pile of ads against Republican Bob Ehrlich over his failure to support ever more gun control, as if it would have stopped the snipers cold. Woodruff wasn't asking if those ads were maybe tasteless or exploitative. She wanted to know why there couldn't be more of the same against the gun-rights lobby. They're "so powerful and so relentless...how do you keep going in this situation when even your own advocates are saying the climate is just not right for this?"
When Woodruff interviewed Lt. Gov. Townsend, she kept hitting the sympathy button by pounding away at the shootings of her father and uncle - twice in promotional announcements, and twice within the Townsend interview. She did not ask Townsend why Maryland stopped doing background checks on gun buyers from March to July of this year.
Journalists have a duty to uncover the latest information, especially when its audience is feeling very literally under the gun. Their sniper reporting kept the public aware, and ultimately helped nab the bad guys. It's too bad that the relief at the sniper story's end had to be matched by the tried and false conventions of liberal spin.