Does the Media's Obsession With 24/7 Breaking News Compromise Law Enforcement?

In the Good Old Days, journalists generally held a story if authorities said it could compromise the stakeout, chase or anticipated capture of a suspect. Even if we knew where agents were headed or or stood with them outside a motel where a kidnapper an

May 11, 2010 at 2:06 pm

In the Good Old Days, journalists generally held a story if authorities said it could compromise the stakeout, chase or anticipated capture of a suspect.

Even if we knew where agents were headed or stood with them outside a motel where a kidnapper and victim were hidden, we responded with silence. We shared the agents’ fear that the kidnapper might hear any on-the-spot report and see TV images that would alert him to imminent capture, injury or death.

When The Seattle Times responded to the murder of four police officers, it reached out to readers with tweets, blogs, Google Wave, web sites and print. Had there been any suspicion that these decisions compromised the eventually successful pursuit of the killer, the paper would not have won the recent Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.

In the new media age, with its obsessive battle for online readers and viewers on 24/7 cable news, there might be reason to revisit our traditional restraint when reporting an investigation or chase.

How bad is it? Tweets from outside the Mumbai hotels in India apparently were relayed to killers inside, helping them anticipate moves by police and commandos. Whether those tweets originated from accomplices or passersby is unclear, but the risk forces us to ask whether technology has outrun our judgment.

These issues arose again when the news media unthinkingly helped the Times Square bombing suspect almost escape. Here’s how NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston recounted that fiasco:

“Law enforcement officials usually say they can’t talk to reporters about an ongoing investigation, but there were leaks in this case from the beginning — partly because of the dynamic between two powerful law enforcement forces (FBI and NYPD) in New York City. … Get detectives or agents out for a beer and one of their favorite pastimes is griping about something the NYPD did or something the FBI missed. Because of that, there tend to be a lot of leaks.

“Details about the Times Square investigation were all over the local newspapers, even as authorities were still trying to puzzle out who was responsible. Any element of surprise that law enforcement might have had was evaporating. … As one law enforcement official told NPR, ‘Our operational plans were being driven by the media, instead of the other way around. And that’s not good.’ "

She said a law enforcement official told her that “they watched in horror” as news organizations talked about where investigators could find the vehicle identification number (VIN). “The coverage was providing a lot of clues about the direction the case was going.”

Then, about 36 hours after the attack, she said, “one news organization reported that law enforcement officials were looking for an American citizen of Pakistani descent from Shelton, Conn. NPR also had the information but didn’t report it out of concern that it would affect the investigation before (Faisal) Shahzad’s arrest.”

This probably was the critical intervention. “Shahzad mentioned that news report after he was in police custody, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the case. He told the arresting officers that the moment he read it was the moment he knew it was only a matter of time before authorities would close in on him. He also assumed from the report that he was under surveillance.”

As the NPR reported noted, “surveillance is only effective if people don’t know they are being watched. ‘It was like watching an episode of 24 in real time,’ a law enforcement official said. The only problem was that Shahzad was able to watch it, too. Then it got worse: Reporters started showing up at Shahzad’s house in Shelton, waiting for the arrest to happen. Shahzad was actually up the road at a ramshackle apartment he had rented in Bridgeport. That’s where officers were watching him — but apparently that also was leaked. A TV reporter showed up there and waited.”

By then, arresting officers “knew from running Shahzad’s name through databases that he had purchased a gun in March. If the suspect was following the media reports, he knew the noose was tightening and might try to shoot his way out. They had to fundamentally change how they were going to approach the house to prepare for that possibility.

“But Shahzad surprised them by leaving the apartment. He went to a local supermarket and they lost track of him … for about three hours. When they finally caught up with Shahzad just before midnight Monday on a plane bound for Dubai, he smiled at the officers and said, ‘I’ve been expecting you. Are you NYPD or FBI?’ ”

Curmudgeon Notes

A paper that won’t stand behind its reporters or photographers isn’t worth working for. That includes the Ohio State student daily, The Lantern, whose photographer, Alex Kotran, was handcuffed and charged with criminal trespass after taking photos that would embarrass OSU.

The Lantern used his photos but refused to provide Kotran a lawyer. OSU dropped the charges, but Kotran still faces a meeting with campus cops and a review by the Office of Student Life’s Judiciary Committee.

I’m relying on Lantern reports, and the basic facts seem clear: Ag school cows got loose on an OSU athletic field on April 21, chased by OSU cops and other OSU employees. An ag school employee ordered Kotran to stop taking pictures.

He said he was on public property, and she called the cops. OSU Officer William Linton told Kotran he couldn’t take photos from where he was standing because it was dangerous. Kotran moved to the other side of the field behind a chain link fence and took more photos.

He followed the chase and was ordered again to leave, but Linton ran up and handcuffed him. Kotran was charged and released.

Tom O’Hara, The Lantern’s adviser, is quoted by the paper saying, “I find it odd that the university has the resources to pursue prosecution of a student who hasn’t done anything wrong, but it doesn’t have the resources to help defend a student who hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Lost in the brouhaha over lawyers is the government using police powers to block newsgathering that would embarrass it. In this case, OSU embarrassment over the arrest — not the cows — went national online. The school’s decision to drop charges suggests Kotran was not in danger nor was he creating a danger for others.

Government intervention began when the OSU farm school employee threw a hissy fit and the student photographer challenged her authority. OSU cops were no brighter. They had the opportunity to defuse the situation but escalated it.

Arrest by dim cops is a newsgathering risk in our jobs. However, being hung out to dry by our employers when they use the product of our risk-taking is unconscionable.

The Enquirer bragged it had aerials of the Flying Pig marathon but used “provided” and unaccredited Page 1 photos of the male and female winners at the finish line. Weird.

• David Krikorian mocked a Democratic congressional primary opponent’s Indian name or he’s the victim of conspiracy aided and abetted by the news media. Maybe I missed it, but no one named a source who said she/he heard the reportedly offensive remark. All we got were pious mutterings from Democratic party officials, opportunistic Republicans and others who said they heard from someone who heard… That’s pretty thin sourcing for a political mugging. The real story was the undercover primary support from “Turks for Krikorian” and “Pakistanis for Yalamanchili.”

• Flyover Land gets short shrift from the national news media. The South didn’t get its power back after storms earlier in this decade, but that was only a local story — too far to go for diminished national news media staff and budgets. The current Nashville flood suffered similar inattention until the Grand Ole Opry was inundated and some historic instruments were soaked. Now that’s news.

• In a review of Nature’s Ghost, a book on animal extinction over the millenia, Ari Kelman notes in The Nation how two avian species, the last passenger pigeon and the last Carolina parakeet, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. “One wonders if the animals still at the zoo, apparently a cradle of extinction, sought transfers to other facilities.”

• That same edition of The Nation has a wonderful clanger in the cover story, “Fueling the Afghan War: A Tale of Two Companies and a ‘Bribe’ from the US in Kyrgyzstan.” Investigative reporter Aram Roston writes that both of those companies “are incorporated on the island of Gibraltar, a British territory off Spain…” Gibraltar is a rocky promontory on the Spanish mainland.

• Catching The New York Times in an ethical slip is like catching The New Yorker in a typo. It’s great sport, except that a goof by The Times matters. In a recent Page 1 story about the gulf oil spill, the paper quoted Quenton R. Dokken of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, identified only as a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Tex. He said, “The sky is not falling. … It isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico.”

ProPublica noodled around and found that “at least half of the 19 members of the group’s board of directors have direct ties to the offshore drilling industry. One of them is currently an executive at Transocean, the company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded last month, causing millions of gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.”

That brought a response from Dokken, who said $500,000 of the annual $2 million budget comes from private sector, including gas and oil companies, and the rest comes from government grants.

Tom Zeller Jr., a reporter on the story, said The Times knew about these ties as well as the budget and it might have been smarter to spell them out but “we operate within space constraints” and there were links in the online version if readers wanted to know more.

Faced with blogger assaults, The Times published this Editor’s Note: “A front-page news analysis article on Tuesday discussed the uncertainty over the ultimate environmental impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One expert quoted was Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist who is the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation. (He said the spill ‘isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico,’ but also said that ‘we’ve always got to ask ourselves how long can we keep heaping these insults on the gulf and having it bounce back.’)

“The article described the Gulf of Mexico Foundation simply as a conservation group. It should have included more information about the organization, a nonprofit group that says its mission is ‘to promote and facilitate conservation of the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico and its resources’ through research and other programs. While the group says the majority of its funding comes from federal and state grants, it also receives some money from the oil industry and other business interests in the gulf, and includes industry executives on its board.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]