Access Denied  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2002

Access Denied   

The sniper case illustrates an ominous post-September 11 trend of trying to keep information away from journalists--and the public.

By Barbara Cochran
Cochran is president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.     


Even on the morning after two men had been arrested in the Washington sniper case, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose couldn't resist another swipe at the news media. "This whole pressure of the media feeling like they've got to get things out in the public, I think, is inappropriate," Moose told "Good Morning America" anchor Charles Gibson.

Journalists, of course, think that is precisely what they're supposed to do--get things out in the public. Moose's comment highlighted the tensions that developed between news organizations and law enforcement during the 23 days in which the Washington area became a killing ground.

The relationship seesawed between confrontation and cooperation. It ranged from Moose's tirade over the tarot card story to the compliance of local traffic reporters when officials asked them to withhold details about roadblocks. Law enforcement teetered between stonewalling and using the media to reassure the public and send messages to the killer.

In the end, it was the widespread but unauthorized dissemination of information about their Chevy Caprice with New Jersey tags that led to the arrests of John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo. A trucker heard the license number on the radio and telephoned police, who descended on the Maryland rest stop where the two were sleeping in that car. The killings stopped because the news media did their job.

Chris Whitcomb, a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team member, summed it up on "Meet the Press": "The media's a part of the process now. There's nothing you can do to avoid that. It's a tool that law enforcement can use to convey information to the public. Some of that information is just simply comforting the community and giving them a better sense of what law enforcement is doing. But it's a tool that we saw end up being absolutely an integral part of the solution of this case."

The Washington sniper case is not the first time journalists and law enforcement have struggled to achieve the right balance, and it certainly won't be the last. Although the news media, especially local television and radio, were praised for their coverage, many in the public seemed to side with law enforcement officials when they criticized journalists for being too aggressive.

In fact, the sniper case is part of an ominous trend affecting the relationship among government, the news media and the public, a trend that has taken hold in the months since September 11, 2001. The message to journalists is, "Government knows best, so don't ask too many questions."

Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the public has been much more willing to sacrifice its right to information out of a greater concern for security. Although the sniper suspects turned out to have no apparent ties to an organized terror group, obviously people in the Washington area felt very vulnerable as the ordeal played out. In one example, reporters trying to cover a school's decision to play its football game elsewhere were turned away by parents who feared that just being on television would make their children targets.

Those security concerns, which shaped so much of the information flow in the sniper case, are affecting the access to information we have become accustomed to in our democracy. Since September 11, government agencies increasingly have withheld material and blocked access. In the name of ensuring security at home and abroad, the government has closed down many opportunities for news coverage that have been commonplace in the past.

Most striking has been the Pentagon's handling of the news media. Veteran correspondents who have covered the Defense Department for years, even through the limits imposed during the Persian Gulf War, say they have never seen tighter restrictions. Their sources have dried up, not surprising when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declares that anyone who leaks plans for an Iraqi invasion should "be imprisoned."

When U.S. troops went off to Afghanistan, it marked the first extended time in history that American military forces had gone into battle unaccompanied by reporters. The result was a war waged out of the American public's view. Even now, months after the start of the attacks, there are many unanswered questions.

The trend toward secrecy pervades the federal government. Not long after September 11, government databases began disappearing from the Internet. At about the same time, Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed long-standing Freedom of Information Act policy and encouraged agencies to resist such requests if there was a "sound legal basis" to do so. The war on information flow continued when the Homeland Security Act was introduced, with a proposal to allow the new Department for Homeland Security to exempt from disclosure certain documents that all other cabinet departments are required to reveal.

The legal war on terrorism has taken place in secret. The government has revealed little about the 1,100 noncitizens who were detained after September 11. Likewise, the detainees rounded up in Afghanistan and shipped to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba cannot be interviewed or even identified. If they, or anyone else, should ever be tried in a military tribunal, that tribunal will be closed to the press.

Right now, people are not clamoring for more information, but they are asking questions. What were the intelligence failures that allowed the September 11 attacks to occur? How safe are our ports, rail transportation, nuclear power plants and water supplies? Is our government prepared to protect us from nuclear, biological and chemical attack? What are the dangers in going to war with Iraq?

As the law enforcement agencies in the Washington sniper case discovered, providing information to the public via the press can be crucial to success.

There are lessons for both news organizations and government officials in the sniper case. Reporters can't rely on press conferences and handouts. The public is counting on the news media for vital information, the kind that comes from trusted sources and relationships that have been established through years of experience. Likewise, by sharing information, government agencies can prepare the public and enlist their support in time of crisis.

Unfortunately, the sniper episode showed how vulnerable our society continues to be. With new threats of terrorism being reported, and with disturbed individuals adopting the tactics of terror, incidents like this are all too likely to recur. Government and news media will be called upon in the future to work together on behalf of the public. When they are, the lessons of the Washington sniper story will serve both sides well.

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