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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Authorities Praised for Fairness in Dealing With Media

Aftermath: Agencies have balanced family privacy concerns with reporters' hunger for information, news veterans say.

March 31, 1997|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — Caught between the media's deafening clamor for information and the families' impassioned pleas for privacy, authorities investigating the mass suicide here sought a middle course: providing frequent briefings but withholding some key details.

It was a policy that won praise from many in the media horde that descended on this ritzy community, many of them veterans of breaking stories that have deteriorated into rancorous confrontations between police and media.

"In terms of what authorities were providing us, you couldn't expect more," said Arthur Lord, senior producer for NBC News, based in Los Angeles. "It's been a textbook example of how to handle very bad news in your town."

San Diego County Sheriff's Department investigators, still reeling from the horror of finding 39 corpses, held ad hoc briefings outside the mansion within hours of the grisly discovery Wednesday afternoon. The periodic briefings continued into the early hours of Thursday as news crews began arriving from around the country.

Photographers and camera crews were allowed at least limited access to the mansion grounds. The result minimized the tendency of the more adventuresome in the trade to sneak through bushes and around roadblocks.

"News types tend to want to get at that forbidden fruit," said David Lerner, a sound technician with NBC. "If you just give kids the candy, they won't steal it from you."

Andy Lippman, the Los Angeles bureau chief for Associated Press, who has worked in AP bureaus in 10 cities and covered stories ranging from coal mine disasters to the Los Angeles riots to the Beverly Hills, Ky., Supper Club fire that killed 167 people, praised San Diego officials for providing information that was timely and detailed and then being willing to answer questions.

"They really went through the details to give us an awful lot to deal with," Lippman said. "I watched both news conferences and I didn't see any questions that were ducked."

At a mass news conference Thursday afternoon at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the Sheriff's Department played an eerie three-minute snippet of videotape taken at the mansion--but the tape had been edited to eliminate some of the more gruesome scenes.

On Friday, at yet another news conference, the county medical examiner released the names of victims whose families had been notified--but the officials listed victims by state, omitting hometowns in deference to families who hoped to avoid a barrage of media calls.

"I think for the most part, we preserved the privacy of families who did not want the press to descend on them," said Gayle Falkenthal, a former radio producer and now a press aide to Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst.

The two entities directly involved with the investigation--the San Diego County government and the Sheriff's Department--have former journalists as spokesmen.

Jack Merker had joined county government two weeks ago as a press aide after two decades in the radio and television business in San Diego. It was his idea to provide a satellite feed at the news conference so that scenes from the videotape--including the bodies in their purple shrouds and new Nikes--could be instantly broadcast.

"I just wanted to treat people in the press as I would want to be treated if I was still in the press, which I was for 25 years," Merker said.

Ron Reina, a former radio sportscaster and now special assistant to Sheriff Bill Kolender, said he knew it was best that information come directly from the officials involved at both the Sheriff's Department and medical examiner's office--including the two deputies who were the first to enter the mansion.

"Being an ex-newsie I know that when you're covering a story, you don't want to hear from some PR guy," Reina said. "Using a sports analogy, you want to hear directly from the guy who hit the three home runs or the guy who just made the big trade."

At one of the news conferences, Reina was seen chewing gum. A media-wise police official watching the conference on television paged Reina to deliver a simple message: Lose the gum.

The Sheriff's Department personnel who provided most of the information to the press--Kolender, Cmdr. Alan Fulmer, Undersheriff Jack Drown, Sgt. Don Crist and homicide Lt. Gerald Lipscomb--have long experience dealing with local media and are at ease in front of cameras and note pads. Medical Examiner Dr. Brian Blackbourne had given few interviews since being hired by the county in 1990 but proved to be an effective spokesman.

"When they had information, they gave it out, and their spokesmen were coherent," said Cathy Clark, co-anchor of KUSI-TV's 10 p.m. newscast, a veteran of 25 years of San Diego broadcast and print journalism. "It went very well."

San Diego has had its share of confrontations between media and law enforcement officials: Photographers arrested at crime scenes, accusations of unfairness by police, accusations of cover-ups by the media and, in the tenure of longtime Sheriff John Duffy, an acrimonious feud.

But for the moment those days are in the past.

"At the moment, the relationship between San Diego law enforcement and media is quite good," Clark said. "The sheriff and the police chief have learned the lesson over the years of how to deal with the media: Just come out and deal with it. Don't hide."

Said Falkenthal: "I think here in San Diego everybody has taken time to understand each other's roles. There's a very low level of friction [between media and officialdom]. It's still present but not what some people have experienced elsewhere."

Still, some of the goodwill between the media and the Sheriff's Department may have been the product of unusual circumstances: There will be no trials and no concern for the rights of the accused.

"If we had had a fugitive or a suspect," Reina said, "we would certainly not have released that tape."

Times staff writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this story.

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