A journalism task force released a report Wednesday commending the Tribune-Herald’s decision to publish “The Sinful Messiah” series on cult leader Vernon Howell before the Mount Carmel raid.
The series ran Feb. 27 despite a request by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to hold off publication.
A day later, the ATF raided Mount Carmel. Four agents died — as did at least five Branch Davidians — in an effort to arrest Howell for allegedly possessing automatic weapons.
ATF officials and some local authorities, such as McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell, blasted the Tribune-Herald’s decision to print the results of its eight-month investigation into the cult.
The Society of Professional Journalists, however, said at a Dallas press conference that the newspaper demonstrated “significant journalistic skill and courage in pursuing and publishing the story about the Branch Davidians.”
“The editors of the Tribune-Herald sincerely and fairly considered the request of federal authorities,” the SPJ task force’s report said. “The editors maintained the importance of revealing significant information about the allegations of child sexual abuse and weapons stockpiling outweighed any reasons to further delay publishing of the series. In the absence of any overriding factors, the Tribune-Herald’s decision to publish when it did was justifiable.”
But the report also seconded Editor Bob Lott’s statement to task force members that he wishes the Tribune-Herald had published “The Sinful Messiah” closer to its completion date in late January.
“It would seem that given the serious nature of the concerns about activities at Mount Carmel, the month-long delay in publishing the story, primarily for its own ‘internal security reasons’ at the newspaper, is difficult to justify fully,” the report said. “The Tribune-Herald had a strong duty to report as quickly as possible about what authorities had or had not done in relation to concerns about abuse and about weapons.”
The nine-member SPJ task force, which included Associate Professor Sara Stone of Baylor University, found no evidence to support blaming the media for the botched raid on Mount Carmel. The resulting standoff ended April 19 when a fire killed Howell and at least 80 cult members.
“Charges that journalists were responsible for what happened with the gun battle or the standoff are not substantiated,” said Bob Steele, who led the task force and directs the ethics program at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Steele said the task force turned up “no concrete evidence” that a KWTX-TV news photographer inadvertently tipped off the Branch Davidians about the ATF raid.
Photographer Jim Peeler recently told The Dallas Morning News that when he got lost on Feb. 28, cult member David Jones offered him directions to Mount Carmel.
Peeler said he didn’t realize the impact of the conversation until the Texas Rangers began interviewing journalists who witnessed the raid. In the article, Peeler declined to say what he told Jones.
But Houston attorney Jack Zimmermann, who represented Howell’s top lieutenant Steve Schneider and was allowed to enter Mount Carmel during the 51-day siege, said the chance conversation alerted cult members to the raid.
Peeler told Jones to take cover because 75 agents and helicopters were about to converge on the compound, Zimmermann told the Associated Press. Jones got the word to Howell.
But task force member Phil Record, an ombudsman at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said KWTX-TV maintains that Peeler “never said there would be any raid on the compound.”
“Our feeling is that the (news) reports did not change the task force’s report,” Steele said.
“What he said is not different than what the television station told us originally.”
Harwell was quoted in the report as accusing an unnamed Waco media representative of tipping off the Branch Davidians about the raid and eliminating the element of surprise for the ATF.
Harwell also told the task force that he wasn’t interviewed for the Tribune-Herald series, which noted that the sheriff’s department was alerted in 1990 to accusations of abuse at Mount Carmel.
However, Tribune-Herald reporters did interview Lt. Gene Barber for the series and talked to Chief Deputy Dan Weyenburg and Lt. Truman Simons, among others, regarding the monitoring of the cult by the sheriff’s department.
Harwell was not available for comment Wednesday.
SPJ formed a task force at Record’s request to examine the media’s performance before and after the ATF raid on Mount Carmel.
“We go around spending time looking over other people’s shoulders,” Record said.
“But we object when someone looks over ours. If it’s good enough for the other person, it has to be good enough for us. We have to be mature and let people examine our performance. I feel very strongly about that.”
SPJ National President Georgiana Vines said she backed creation of the task force because “it seemed journalism ethics was on the line.”
“Phil’s phone call came on the heels of two other events involving journalism ethics: NBC apologizing for rigging a General Motors truck with incendiary devices, and the USA Today acknowledging it misled readers with a photograph of Los Angeles gang members brandishing guns,” said Vines, assistant managing editor for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
Record, though, on Wednesday denounced the news report that most influenced him to seek the task force.
He called Houston Chronicle reporter Kathy Fair’s comments on “Nightline” a few days after the raid an “outrageous example” of spreading rumors.
“She reported that federal authorities arriving at Mount Carmel had found local reporters in the trees,” Record said.
“That was outrageous and irresponsible. Frankly, that’s what led me to request the task force. I was thinking, ‘If that’s so, we’ve got to look at it.’ But the problem with people who repeat rumors is that they never get around to following them up. I think it was derelict of ‘Nightline’s’ part for not coming back and saying there was no proof of that.”
Houston Chronicle Managing Editor Tony Pederson declined comment on Record’s statement.
The task force criticized journalists for not protesting vehemently when the government sealed search warrants, held closed hearings and moved the media almost three miles away from Mount Carmel.
“News organizations should have been more vigilant and vigorous in challenging limitations on access and freedom of information,” the report said.
“Accuracy and perspective were the casualties of the lack of access to the front lines and the absence of a more meaningful and consistent flow of official information.”
Journalists should have filed Freedom of Information requests and fought for the right to pick pools of reporters and photographers to cover Mount Carmel from the front lines, the SPJ report said.
“Journalists have long chosen to accept physical danger as part of their role in covering important stories, whether it be war, civil unrest, terrorist actions or natural disasters,” the report said.
“Journalists also have a responsibility to the public to hold the powerful accountable, including scrutinizing the functioning of the government. Access to the heart of a story, to the front lines of any battle, is essential for journalists to fulfill those obligations to the public.”
Dallas radio station KRLD and CNN were chastised for interviewing Howell live after the raid.
Other reporters were also reprimanded for trying to telephone Howell then. Steele said the calls could have interfered with negotiations to end the siege.
Though task force members interviewed more than 100 people, Steele said lawsuits and the impending federal murder trials of 12 Branch Davidians hindered SPJ’s access to some journalists and law enforcement officials.
“This report by the special task force is not intended as the definitive judgment on matters of right and wrong behavior by news organizations and individual journalists who covered Waco,” Steele said.
“It is also not intended to be a ‘protect your profession’ or ‘circle the VDTs’ report produced by a group of fellow journalists.
“Beyond that, this report presents the type of analysis and recommendations that could serve journalists well in preparing for the ‘next’ Waco story.”