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End-Times Journalism BY CHRISTOPHER COOK FOR ME, THE MOST surreal moment in the crazy, whacked out miniseries dubbed “Standoff in Waco,” a co-production of the news media and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, occurred precisely at 4:10 p.m. on Friday, March 5. I was driving past the State Capitol when I turned on the radio. KLBJ-AM, which serves up an all-talk menu interspersed with news, was carrying a dispatch from a reporter “on the scene” near Waco. In this case, “on the scene” might have meant on a road about two miles from the Branch Davidian compound nicknamed “Ranch Apocalypse,” surrounded by porta-potties and satellite dishes and cows grazing in grass pastures and more than one hundred other reporters fighting off the tedium while they work on their tans. And then, maybe not. In this case, “on the scene” sounded more like the lobby of the Waco Chamber of Commerce office. The reporter was interviewing a local official who was delighted to report that the “Standoff in Waco” miniseries was injecting a surprising number of dollars into the local economy. This is really having a very positive economic impact on us, he crowed, noting that all the news crews and movie producers and law enforcement personnel seemed to be filling up hotel rooms and eating their way through the local restaurants. We haven’t tallied any final figures on the total economic impact, he added, but it could well be several million dollars. And then, on that positive, upbeat note without having mentioned the ubiquitous seven-times-multiplier economic effect, no doubt an oversight the KLBJ-AM reporter signed off. Like most consumers of what writer and heroin addict William Burroughs called “that long news spoon,” I have become accustomed to hearing price tags put on almost everything in one news report or another. Saving children from painful, debilitating diseases is not why we should vaccinate them; we should vaccinate children because it will save taxpayers millions of dollars in medical costs later. You may think the hurricane was bad because it killed several dozen people, but wait until you hear the price. tag on the damage! And so on. Christopher Cook is director of communications forthe Texas AFL-CIO and teaches communications ethics at St. Edward’s University in Austin. Still, as I listened to the radio reporter finish her news bulletin from Waco, I glanced down at my wristwatch, halfway expecting to see it dripping off my arm like the surrealistic portrayal of a watch in a Salvador Dali painting. Instead, there was my old trusty Timex reading 4:10 p.m., and I understood that what I had just heard on the radio had, indeed, really happened. In Waco, Texas, a bungled federal police raid, a bloody massacre and a prolonged standoff between religious zealots and cowboy cops had somehow been transmogrified by the need for a news story into an occurrence guaranteed to make the local leaders of any Texas city swoon with excitement economic development! . Four days later, the good financial news from Waco reached even so far as the headquarters of America Inc. On Monday, March 8, the Washington Post carried a story on the positive financial impact of the standoff at Ranch Apocalypse. It might be costing taxpayers an arm and a leg, but the private sector sure appreciated the support. Of course, if reporting on the Waco debacle could become more grotesque, it would. And it could, so it did. On Tuesday, March 9, the television tabloid “Current Affair” ran a segment in which Branch Davidian leader David Koresh was variously called “the Texas Time Bomb” and “the Texas Madman.” On the same day the FBI, by now in charge at Ranch Apocalypse, was calling in Abrams M-1 tanks to surround the compound, “Current Affair” aired an interview with Koresh’s mother and brother, both of whom shed remarkably little light on Koresh. On Wednesday, March 10, a Waco publisher called a press conference to announce his company had already begun writing a book entitled “Madman of Waco.” He candidly admitted he was out to make a buck, though he promised to be responsible about it. The same day, the television Arts & Entertainment channel announced production of a special on the Waco carnage either a documentary or a movie or perhaps that ever-increasing scourge of news programming, a docudrama. In any case, the Austin American-Statesman TV critic wrote, the result would be’ a “riveting reality show.” As it turned out, Wednesday, March 10, was a big news day on the Waco story. The senior vice president of miniseries and movies for NBC announced production of a made-forTV movie titled “In the Line of Duty: Assault in Waco,” scheduled to air during the May ratings sweeps if, that is, the standoff has reached a climax by then. Naturally, this isn’t the sort of publicity the feds had anticipated when they invited reporters along for the raid on Sunday, February 28. What began as perhaps an attempt to get the ATF police on “Top Cops” had become a bad episode of “Keystone Cops.” It only makes sense in a news media world that makes little sense that once “Standoff in Waco” became a real standoff, therefore interminably boring and, even worse, bad video, that the resultant news vacuum would begin to fill with the flotsam and jetsam of what too often passes for journalism these days. When the news media starts reporting on its own coverage of an event, as happened at Waco, then you know a critical mass of legitimate reporting has been reached and what remains is fluff and sensationalism. In fact, the news director of one Austin network affiliate groaned that what had begun as a great news story had become “a black hole swallowing up my budget.” With two news crews rotating around the clock in Waco, he said, “Standoff in Waco” had become an ,absurdly expensive nightmare. “So why duplicate coverage?” I asked. “It’s wasteful to have all those reporters hanging around to cover the same thing. Why not pool resources with other stations?” “I tried,” he replied gloomily. “But basically, we don’t trust one another. The station on the scene might miss the story.” “Too bad,” I said. “Yeah, well, what it really is is that they want their own reporter to be there when Koresh surrenders, not some other station’s reporter.” That’s how it sits as The Observer goes to press. The narrow farm-to-market road two miles from the Branch Davidian compound remains lined with television producers and reporters from around the world, all of them impossibly bored, all of them waiting for the sensational moment when David Koresh surrenders. Or, better yet, for the even more sensational moment when the federal police charge the compound or Koresh renews the shootout. What a shame that the news media won’t even be close enough to see it happen. Which raises an interesting question. If a shootout occurs in the forest and there’s no one there to report it, does the shootout make a story? Even more interesting: Would the shootout even occur if reporters weren’t there to report it? At the “Standoff in Waco,” that’s the fun THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15 +e-liumaCF,4.. 0.00,