The Dallas Morning News
DATE:03/12/93 BYLINE:Pete Slover
Journalists' panel looks at ethics of coverage
Even as the standoff in Waco stretches through its second week, a journalists' group has begun tackling the ethical questions posed in coverage of the Branch Davidian siege.
"If we don't discuss these things now, next time -- and God knows there will be a next time -- we won't have any guidelines,' said Dr. Martin L. Gibson, a communications professor at the University of Texas at Austin and chairman of the ethics task force formed by the Society of Professional Journalists.
The panel is looking at issues that cropped up in a series of journalistic oddities: Local reporters showed up at the Feb. 28 raid and were later to face suggestions that they tipped off the Branch Davidians; Dallas radio station KRLD-AM (1080) made a deal to play David Koresh's taped message, only to see the cult leader renege on his offer to free children in return; another Dallas radio talk show host circumvented a federal blockade of the compound's phone lines. He asked for and got a sign -- a banner -- hung by the Branch Davidian sect members.
The task force includes professors and print and broadcast journalists from across the country, with a goal of reporting their findings by April 1.
"Who knows? The siege may not be over by then,' Dr. Gibson said. "It'll all be by fax and telephone. We don't have a budget.'
The questions the group will address include KRLD's involvement in the case. The station had an extensive dialogue with Mr. Koresh until the compound's phone lines were cut. The station and the Christian Broadcasting Network aired Mr. Koresh's 58-minute message at the behest of federal authorities.
In doing so, a media ethics expert said, the station risked its credibility, and that of the media generally.
"In general, any time you step out of the supposedly objective and fair role, you're taking a chance,' said Doug Ramsey, senior vice president for the Foundation for American Communications, a Los Angeles-based journalism think tank.
He said that the public might assume that deals for coverage are commonplace with police and other news subjects.
Station executives at KRLD said that they knew they would be second-guessed for breaking the journalistic traditions, even as the tape was being prepared for broadcast.
The station had broadcast two earlier, newsworthy messages from Mr. Koresh, after which pairs of children were released, station manager Charlie Seraphin said. With that in mind, the tape deal was agreed to for the good of the sect children, in hopes of a safe resolution.
"I can't think of anything I would have done differently,' Mr. Seraphin said. "I think many good, decent, reasonable people would agree.'
Another issue the panel will address is whether the Waco Tribune-Herald should have honored a request by federal authorities to delay publication of a series about the Branch Davidians, which ran the day before the Feb. 28 raid.
Survivors of some agents slain in the raid have criticized the paper, saying the series might have alerted the sect to the federal strike.
The panel will discuss whether the money spent by print and broadcast media from across the country could be better used in other ways, and whether the quality of coverage was impeded by the logjam of reporters, Dr. Gibson said. That issue will include whether newspapers and broadcasters should scale back their battle to have their own staffers at major events.
The task force also will review the way the media were treated by federal authorities, including the effect of restricted access to the cult, the area near the compound and most federal court records pertaining to the case.
The group's agenda was formulated before the latest incident, which has raised questions of journalistic ethics.
A talk-show host with radio station KGBS-AM (1190) on Tuesday broadcast a request for the Branch Davidians to hang a banner if they were listening. When the sect responded, federal authorities criticized the radio station for subverting the negotiating process, which has included isolation.
Station management defended the activity, saying their actions might have opened up negotiation, and contending they were a legitimate exercise of free speech.
Said Jim Long, KGBS program director: "What did we do? We left. How could we hinder the process? We don't have guns; we don't have an army of personnel down there.'
That action went beyond the expected, stubborn pursuit of a news story, said journalism ethics expert Stephen Klaidman, a fellow of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The show-us-a-sign technique would have been improper for a "pure' news broadcaster -- if not for a talk-show, he said.
"When a law enforcement agency is trying to contain a situation where lives are at stake, the press ought not to be interfering in a way that could threaten lives,' Mr. Klaidman said.
The task force findings will be reported to its members and possibly distributed to law enforcement agencies whose actions are included in the study, Dr. Gibson said.
"To ask these questions is not to presume an answer to any of them. My ethics can't be your ethic. It's a very personal thing.'
Koresh preached violence, officials, ex-follower say names of sect members in compound released
WACO -- Federal officials and a young ex-cult member said Thursday that cult leader David Koresh promoted violence -- even suicide -- among his followers.
Meanwhile, Mr. Koresh and most members of the Branch Davidian sect remained in an armed standoff with federal authorities for the 12th day.
The FBI said three men were expected to leave the compound, but there were no signs that any had done so by late Thursday. The anticipated release apparently was approved by Mr. Koresh, who, complaining of a headache, has not talked with federal authorities since Tuesday.
FBI agents also released a list of 48 cult members who remain in the compound -- most of whom have spoken with negotiators by phone since a Feb. 28 shootout. That battle between the cult and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms left four ATF agents and an undetermined number of cult members dead.
One of the women believed to remain in the compound is Sherri Jewell. Thursday her 12-year-old daughter, Kiri, who said she spent four years with her mother among the Branch Davidians, discussed life in the compound on the Donahue show.
While there, she said, she was taught to put a gun in her mouth and instructed how to commit suicide by taking cyanide. Kiri said she now fears that Mr. Koresh's followers will kill themselves rather than surrender.
She called on law officers to end the stalemate by invading the compound. "Better a few people die than all of them,' she said of the cult members.
Appearing on the talk show with her father, David Jewell of Niles, Mich., who won custody of her last year, the girl said she remembers seeing many guns in the compound and enough food to feed cult members for "weeks and weeks and weeks.'
Mr. Jewell said his daughter had told him about being paddled by Mr. Koresh because she didn't learn a Bible passage fast enough.
In California, federal agents seized audiotapes and videotapes that indicate "evidence of violence' by Mr. Koresh and his followers, ATF spokesman John D'Angelo said Thursday.
He said the tapes were obtained Tuesday from Mr. Koresh's former residence in La Verne, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb. Mr. Koresh lived there until about four years ago.
Mr. D'Angelo declined to elaborate on the contents of the tapes, saying the search warrant was still under court seal.
Also Thursday, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith in Waco denied a motion from lawyers with the Cause Foundation, which describes itself as a civil rights organization, seeking access to Mr. Koresh and his followers.
Judge Smith had the government response to the motion sealed.
David Hollaway, a director of the foundation, said the request was made to allow cult members access to legal counsel and to keep law enforcement authorities "from using excessive force causing them irreparable damage or injury.'
The foundation may appeal the decision, Mr. Hollaway said, pending the outcome of another motion filed by Mr. Koresh's mother, Bonnie Haldeman, which seeks her son's release from the federal siege at the compound.
Mrs. Haldeman and prominent criminal lawyer Dick DeGuerin of Houston, who has agreed to represent Mr. Koresh free of charge, tried to enter the compound through the main checkpoint Thursday.
"I'm only here because David Koresh's mother has asked me to be,' Mr. DeGuerin said. "I think that he needs some independent counsel that he can trust. '
During a briefing Thursday, FBI spokesman Dick Swensen disclosed that Mr. Koresh had not had any telephone conversations with FBI negotiators since Tuesday evening.
Mr. Swensen said the cult leader, complaining of a severe headache, was leaving the negotiations to five cult members.
Member Steve Schneider told federal agents that "he expected three adult males to come out of the compound today,' Mr. Swensen said.
"He stated that these individuals had discussed their desire to leave with Mr. Koresh, and that he -- Koresh -- had agreed to let them.'
One of those wanting to leave was identified as Oliver Gyarfas, 19, an Australian. The FBI said it had no information on the other two.
No cult members have left since March 5. A total of 21 children and two adults -- both elderly women -- have left the compound since the siege began.
As of Thursday, 107 people were believed to remain in the compound, including 17 children, based on estimates provided by those inside.
"We are very optimistic, hoping that this is a big indication today if three people come out,' Mr. Swensen said.
On the other hand, he said, if Mr. Koresh decides not to let any more Branch Davidians leave, it would be a "backward step' in the standoff.
Mr. Swensen said he did not know why the three wanted to leave, nor could he say what would happen to them once they did leave.
"It depends on who they are and if there are any charges,' he said.
Dan Conroy, deputy assistant director of the ATF, said an arrest warrant has been issued for cult member Paul G. Fatta, who is wanted for conspiracy to illegally manufacture and possess machine guns. Mr. Fatta was away from the compound during the gunbattle but has been interviewed several times by reporters since then.
Mr. Conroy also said his agency is continuing to investigate whether word of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound was leaked to cult members or the media. He "absolutely and categorically' denied that any ATF agents tipped the media in advance about the raid.
The first list of cult members in the compound released on Thursday showed that most are either American or British. Of the 48 cult members who were named, 19 were Americans, 14 were British and five were Australians. One member marked a birthday last week.
The nationalities of seven were unknown, and one member each was from Israel, New Zealand and the Philippines.
Mr. Koresh and other cult leaders had recruited members during visits to several countries.
Mr. Swensen said negotiations would continue in an effort to end the siege. "We still remain optimistic that this situation can be resolved in a peaceful manner without further loss of life,' he said.
Since the siege began, Mr. Swensen said, federal agents, who patrol outside the compound, have not gotten any closer than 175-200 yards of the facility.
"There has been no attempt to provoke anything,' he said.
He reiterated that no one but law enforcement officials will be allowed near the compound.
"We're not having anybody go into that compound,' the FBI spokesman said.
That didn't stop people from trying, however. The main checkpoint set up by federal authorities outside the compound attracted a variety of people Thursday.
Among the newspeople crowded around the same spot was Louis Beam, former Ku Klux Klan leader in Houston. Mr. Beam spent five months on the "Most Wanted List' in the late '80s before being arrested for conspiring to overthrow the federal government, charges of which he was later acquitted.
One of his attorneys in that case was Kirk Lyons, executive director of the Cause Foundation.
Mr. Beam, 46, said he now lives in Austin and is writing for a California-based Christian magazine called Jubilee.
Another man identified himself as the Rev. James E. Threadgill of Carmel Baptist Church in Tyler.
He also tried to get in, saying he represented a group of ministers who wanted to "have a prayer with them, see if we could help get the kids out.' He said the authorities told him: "Not a chance.'