The Dallas Morning News
BYLINE:Wayne Slater

Media representatives assess news coverage of standoff near Waco

AUSTIN -- Even as the siege at a religious compound continued Tuesday in Waco, Texas news media outlets assessed the job they have done telling the public a story that has drawn worldwide attention.

At the Texas Daily Newspaper Association convention, representatives of newspapers, television and radio stations discussed the difficulty of reporting without interfering with efforts to end the ordeal between federal agents and the Branch Davidians.

"You want to maintain an arm's length between yourself as a journalistic organization and the government,' said Charlie Seraphin, vice president and station manager of KRLD-AM (1080) in Dallas.

At the same time, he said, KRLD agreed to broadcast statements from cult leader David Koresh, including a 58-minute tape recording, because the tapes were newsworthy and because they prompted the release of some children.

"I don't think there was a capitulation taking place,' he said. "I don't think we violated any journalistic ethic and hopefully we played some small role in having a number of children released.'

Mr. Koresh promised to surrender March 2 if the taped statement was aired, but he later reneged and has remained holed up with his followers in the compound east of Waco.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, suspecting weapons violations, raided the compound Feb. 28. They were met by gunfire, leaving four agents and an unknown number of cultists dead.

Partly because some of those inside the compound come from Great Britain, Australia and other foreign countries, negotiations to break the impasse have received widespread news play.

Members of the media panel said it has been difficult getting accurate information about the confrontation. The ATF and FBI have held daily news briefings but have cut off telephone contact between the media and members of the sect.

"I'm bothered personally from a television sense of how often people are standing up doing live shots when they know absolutely nothing about what is going on,' said Marty Haag, vice president/news of the broadcast division of A.H. Belo Corp., which owns WFAA-TV (Channel 8) and The Dallas Morning News.

Representatives of the ATF and FBI declined invitations to be on the panel.

The moderator, Ralph Langer, senior vice president and executive editor of The News, said that federal officials said they could not discuss the situation while the standoff was still under way.

Panelist Kathy Fair, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, defended remarks she made during a broadcast on ABC's Nightline. On that program, she suggested that some federal law enforcement officials believed the Waco Tribune-Herald had given members of the religious sect advance word of the initial raid.

Spokesmen for the newspaper have denied that it was the source of such a tip.

Questioned by her colleagues Tuesday, Ms. Fair acknowledged that her newspaper had not written about that allegation at the time she discussed it on network television. She said reporters covering the event pick up potential details that often are difficult to substantiate.

Of contentions that someone tipped the cult before federal agents arrived, Ms. Fair said, "Law enforcement officials were wanting the blame the local media.'