The editorial lessons taught by the now-dead gunman who took hostages at the Discovery Channel today.

The editorial lessons taught by the now-dead gunman who took hostages at the Discovery Channel today.

The editorial lessons taught by the now-dead gunman who took hostages at the Discovery Channel today.

Media criticism.
Sept. 1 2010 7:20 PM

Taking the News Hostage

The editorial lessons taught by the now-dead gunman who stormed the Discovery Channel today.

Police in front of the Discovery Channel headquarters.
Police in front of the Discovery Channel headquarters

Rarely in my long, sweet life as a press critic have I knocked a newspaper or a news channel or a magazine for "over-covering" a subject. Oh, I may have sighed and changed the channel when I had heard just about enough about the unsolved disappearance of Natalee Holloway or the swift-boat business or the birther stuff. But my instincts have long been to judge the quality of the work of my peers and worry less about its conciseness.

I do allow myself one loophole: Just because an individual or an organization choreographs an event for the purpose of attracting coverage doesn't oblige a reporter, an editor, or a blogger to cover it.

Now, I've got no principled objection against a news outfit that decides to document every moment from a political demonstration by Republicans, or a protest rally by abortion foes, or "direct action" against a furrier by animal-rights activists, or civil disobedience by a Greenpeacer who has scaled a downtown skyscraper to unfurl a "Save the Whales" flag. If the nation's gazettes and broadcasters want to deem such scripted theater "news," I won't argue. Hell, sometimes readers and viewers can learn a thing or two from a demonstration or a protest.

But I draw a line when it comes to hostage-takers.

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As you probably know, a gunman, reportedly packing explosives, took a hostage or hostages this afternoon at the Discovery Channel's headquarters in suburban Washington, D.C., and was eventually killed by police. A Web site registered in the name of the suspect addressed a series of wacky "demands" to the Discovery Channel about what it should broadcast. (For legacy pages from the site, see Archive.org. In case the Web site goes dark, here's a snapshot of the home page, retrieved at 4:26 p.m.)

The natural reflex of every TV station and newspaper in the Washington market was to dispatch reporters and remote-camera trucks to the scene. Had I been in charge of the Washington Post metro section today or calling the shots at WRC-TV, I'd have ordered the same. You can't say it's not news when somebody who is armed threatens to kill people because he doesn't like what he sees on TV. You can't say it's not news if the hostage-taker ends up detonating a bomb.

But what an editor can decide is what kind of news he's captured and how to play it. Editors and reporters tend to ignore or downplay media events like demonstrations (unless the numbers are huge) or the protest stunts favored by some animal-rights groups (unless it's a remarkable stunt). Most protests—if covered at all—are covered with news briefs.

Hostage-takings like the one at the Discovery Channel deserve similar treatment. Few editors would consider covering as news the suspect's critique of the Discovery Channel. Indeed, few editors thought it was big news when the alleged gunman was arrested outside Discovery Channel headquarters during a February 2008 protest.

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The main differences between today's hostage-taking and your run-of-the-mill demonstration are that 1) the crazed organizer placed the lives of innocent people in danger and 2) he took the press hostage in the bargain. His crime drew its purpose from the fleets of camera trucks that pulled up and the news-radio bulletins updating the status of hostage negotiations. I can't claim to know the mind of this nut job, but I'll bet he would have been less likely to plot his crime if he knew that the press was going to respond to his act with a shrug.

By following its own mindless script—surrounding the Discovery Channel with camera trucks and legions of reporters—the press validated the hostage-taker's mission. It has also seeded future hostage-takings by other publicity hounds and self-destructive maniacs. How long before somebody follows the Discovery Channel perp's example and takes Lifetime's staff hostage in the name of human rights or BET's to fight world hunger?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not calling on the press to stop covering hostage-takings. I'm not even asking TV stations to garage their camera trucks in future hostage incidents.

But hostage-takings are pretty routine events in metropolitan areas. Crazed ex-husbands take their ex-wives hostage, bank robbers take cashiers hostage, carjackers take car owners hostage, and home invaders take entire families hostage all the time. These stories get the coverage they deserve, and it's usually very brief.

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Just because a nut job has staged his hostage-taking in the headquarters of a cable TV network, knowing that it would reap maximum publicity, doesn't mean the press needs to volunteer itself and its audience as hostages, too. If I were a news czar, I'd treat today's hostage crisis at Discovery Channel headquarters the way most journalists treat other attempts to enlist them in a media event. Conservatively. At a great remove. With maximum disdain. And with shrewd editorial judgment.

The best way to cover one-off hostage crises like the one at the Discovery Channel is sparingly—so sparingly that if readers or viewers blinked, they'd miss it.

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