Story unravels in light of Va. killing

Crime, Law and JusticeLaw EnforcementCrimeTelevision IndustryMontgomery County (Pennsylvania)News AgencyHomicide

Late Monday night, reporters found themselves forced to pivot on the fly as a sniper striking anew in the suburbs of Washington knocked the foundation out from under an apparent scoop.

The day started with near-saturation coverage of no news - apparently no one had been shot by the sniper over the weekend. The cable news channels carried the now-familiar news conferences that gave reporters little real information.

Late Monday afternoon, two Baltimore stations reported that a 38-year-old former Marine had drawn the intense interest of law enforcement officials. It turned out that the man interrogated by police wasn't the sniper. But that wouldn't become clear until hours later.

Throughout the day, several reporters, including WBAL-TV's Jayne Miller, learned of the police interest in a West Baltimore man who had been shot by his girlfriend after a domestic dispute. He was found early Saturday morning sitting wounded in the driver's seat of his white van. Searches of his house turned up assault rifles and other weapons, as well as a sniper's manual.

Miller and WMAR's Scott Broom appear to have been the first to report on the scrutiny focused upon the West Baltimore man, but ABC News and MSNBC were also pursuing the story hard. After the two stations' 5 p.m. broadcasts, The Sun scattered a flotilla of reporters, one of whom encountered federal agents combing through possible clues at one of the man's homes in Pennsylvania.

Law enforcement officials here, giving some background, told reporters that circumstantial evidence strongly suggested that the man might be the sniper, even as their counterparts in Montgomery County were discounting his importance as one of many potential suspects.

WBAL's Miller took pains to withhold his name, his employer and several other identifying facts about him, though she cited his age, neighborhood and former military status. She repeatedly noted, both on WBAL-TV and later on MSNBC, that he was not charged with any crime. (Yesterday, The Sun identified the man, Michael L. Swift III, and reported his release from custody in a front-page article.)

"This incident in Baltimore could turn out to be completely unrelated," she told MSNBC's Phil Donahue Monday evening before the man's relationship to the shootings was clear. "But at this point, as [MSNBC host] Jerry [Nachman] said, cops hate coincidences. And there are a lot of them in this case."

The sniper acted again Monday, a bit past 9 p.m. Suddenly the Baltimore man who had loomed so large seemed largely irrelevant. WJZ and WBAL-TV offered captions over prime-time programming announcing the development, while WMAR projected a small live screen inside its broadcast of Monday Night Football to inform viewers of the latest shooting.

CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC had a genuine reason to go live once again, and they aired footage from Washington stations WJLA, WUSA and WRC. (WBFF-TV offered captioned descriptions as well but did not interrupt its broadcast of the final game of the National League Championship Series or even the post-game celebrations by the Giants.)

Meanwhile, WBAL's Rebecca Messa in Rockville became her station's lead reporter for its 11 p.m. newscasts, as Miller was left to explain how a promising lead had unraveled during the night. Yesterday, given a few moments to reflect, Miller said she took pride in her handling of the story. She was pleased, she said, that her caveats telegraphed to viewers the ambivalence of what she knew while acknowledging the man's possible importance to the case.

But the legacy of Richard Jewell, falsely accused in media reports of the Atlanta Olympic bombings in 1996, remains fresh to many news editors and reporters, influencing them as they make such decisions. Other choices are similarly tricky. WUSA-TV in Washington has disclosed several details picked up by investigators as they try to piece together who might be committing these shootings - which last week drew withering criticism from Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose. WUSA revealed that the sniper left a tarot card at the site of one of the shootings, and some contents of a note scribbled on it.

But police failed to ask the station to withhold the information, said Dave Roberts, the station's news director. "Both law enforcement and news organizations understand that each have respective roles and responsibilities," Roberts said. "That involves not being reckless."

Edward Norris, Baltimore's police commissioner, said give-and-take is an expected part of the process. Sometimes, with reporters he trusts, he trades additional information or access to a spot where photographers could shoot footage of suspects in exchange for withholding clues that only a killer would know, for example. "Everyone has to play the game," Norris said yesterday. "You can't prevent someone from leaking things. There are too many people involved."

As a homicide detective in New York City, Norris said, he successfully asked reporters not to divulge that a killer in a double murder had switched the heads of the victims after cutting them off. Too many times, he said, people falsely confess to crimes - he wanted to hold that detail in reserve.

On Monday, suspicion settled on a West Baltimore man who had his own, other troubles. He appeared to be exculpated by a sniper's single shot, which cut short yet another life.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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