19 April 2011

In Our Names. The Media & The Construction of Consent in Waco Texas

On the 18th Anniversary of the tragedy in Waco, Texas, I have decided to publish a copy of a formal deconstruction of media coverage that I completed for a course some time ago. This is a long post in an academic format that might not be all that interesting to many of you. However, I still feel strongly enough about what was done in our names down in Waco to burden you with my thoughts. Thanks for stopping in and as always, any feedback is appreciated.

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Fifty-One Days in Texas: Fruits of the Poisonous Tree
Paul Field
Originally Authored- 19 November 2009


In 1993, on the last day in February, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) attempted to serve a search warrant on a compound in Waco, Texas. Known as Mount Caramel, the compound was home to one-hundred and twenty-five members of a religious group called the Branch Davidians. The group was led by a man named David Koresh. The raid resulted in a protracted shoot-out between ATF agents and Branch Davidians. By day’s end, four agents were dead, some twenty more wounded and an uncertain number of Branch Davidians were also dead or wounded. The ensuing siege would stretch on for fifty-one days until FBI teams, who had assumed control from the ATF, stormed the compound on April 19, 1993 with armored tanks and military-grade tear gas. During this final six-hour assault, a fire erupted inside the buildings and seventy-six Branch Davidians, including Koresh and a number of women and children, perished in the blaze. The Branch Davidian siege is accurately called “One of the most significant stand-offs between American government agencies and U.S. Citizens.”

The entire incident has received a fair amount of academic and official attention in the subsequent years. Various films were produced, supporting one side of the conflict or the other. Separate Senate and Congressional hearings were held in 1995 with follow-up hearings taking place into the twenty-first century. In the face of conflicting testimony, the event has proved divisive. Witnesses and observers who sided with law enforcement’s actions almost universally defended the decisions they made, while those concerned with restrictions to federal power cited the Branch Davidian incident as a prime example of government misconduct and overreaching federal power. This paper does not seek to settle the myriad questions surrounding the Waco incident. Instead, the focus is on media actions and how they shaped nearly universal perceptions of the Branch Davidians before the raid, during the siege, and long after the ashes settled.

The Branch Davidians attracted media attention in the months leading up to February 1993. On February 27, 1993, just one day before the initial ATF raid, the Waco Tribune-Herald began running a seven part series on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians entitled “The Sinful Messiah.” Reporters Mark England and Darlene McCormick labeled the group a dangerous doomsday cult and accused them of everything from sexually abusing children to plotting mass murder. In an accompanying editorial statement, the authors defended the public release of the story by asserting that they were forced to publish the expose because authorities had failed to act on the evidence they had been supplied over the preceding years. The second part of the series appeared the day of the raid and then was accelerated with parts three through seven running in one large article on March 1, 1993. This series would have a disproportionate influence in shaping outsider’s viewpoints of the Branch Davidians.

England and McCormick made no attempt to be unbiased or to present a complete story on the Branch Davidians. Most of their primary sources were former group members who had left the group over disagreements, most notably an individual named Marc Breault. The series also relied heavily on testimony from an Australian private investigator named Geoffrey Hossack. Hossack had been hired by former group members living in Australia. Throughout the series, and in sidebar articles, both reporters presented what they called the testimony of outside experts. Those they cited as experts were actually volunteer anti-cultists from an organization known as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN).

The motives to paint the Branch Davidians as a dangerous cult, held under the spell of Vernon Howell (aka David Koresh) were varied. Mark Breault had feuded with Koresh over leadership of the group before being expelled. In Hossack’s case he was being paid to produce a negative image of the group. Some former members had various legal actions, mostly involving the custody of children living with a maternal parent still within the group, which would have benefited from demonizing Koresh and the Branch Davidians. In the case of CAN, many members made themselves instant celebrities during the ensuing crisis by appearing on news and talk show circuits as cult experts. The CAN organization is privately funded and politically well connected. They had an established history of bias towards non-mainstream religious groups. Because their anti-cult message resonated with many people, it was uncommon to question their claims. Attempts to balance the viewpoints they presented were non-existent.

England and McCormick appear to have made little effort to interview current Branch Davidians, other than some cursory statements they attributed to Koresh. This lapse was interesting since they traveled far abroad to reach certain witnesses, while Branch Davidians were readily available in Waco. The logical deduction is that the entire series was designed to imprint the narrow viewpoint that the Branch Davidians were a dangerous cult. Any evidence to the contrary was downplayed or ignored. Both reporters took state and federal officials to task over what they called a failure to act. The series downplayed numerous official statements that questioned the veracity of presented evidence. Reporters also failed to mention that a number of official investigations failed to substantiate former member’s claims, which were still cited as facts in the series.

The Waco Tribune-Herald series may have passed unnoticed outside of Waco itself if not for the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound. March 1, 1993 saw papers across the country and around the world headlining the previous day’s raid. Most, such as the New York Times, relied heavily on and quoted directly from the Waco Tribune-Herald series. Using the same inflammatory language, New York Times reporter Sam Verhovek labeled the Branch Davidians as a dangerous cult who murdered heroic ATF agents while they were attempting to serve and protect the community. The same allegations of child abuse, weapons stockpiling, and apocalyptic beliefs presented by CAN were repeated, again with no visible attempt at independent verification.

One of the realities of modern news reporting is that the March 1, 1993 New York Times article and several other similar articles by leading dailies were disseminated worldwide via news-wire services such as The Associated Press and Reuters. Local papers and even international news organizations do not typically have the financial resources necessary to station reporters around the globe in order to report first-hand on any developing stories. This resulted in virtually all initial print stories on the raid being essentially the same article. Coupled with twenty-four hour live television coverage by CNN, the Waco Tribune-Herald series was now entrenched as fact and dictated global public perception of the Branch Davidians. Yet this was a group that 96% of their surrounding neighbors in Waco, Texas admittedly knew nothing about. Public access to a balanced report on the Branch Davidians became even less likely following the FBI takeover of the developing siege. Federal agents established an exclusionary perimeter three miles in diameter around the Branch Davidian compound and placed tight controls over all media activity.

The relationship between federal agencies, such as the ATF and the FBI, and news organizations varied throughout the fifty-one day siege. In separate committee hearings, held in 1995 in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, federal officials categorically denied that the Waco Tribune-Herald series had any influence on their decision to raid the Branch Davidian compound. At the same time, they were unable to adequately address questions about the large media operation that was planned in conjunction with the raid. The ATF invited reporters to ride along on the initial raid. Photographic, video, and written records attested to this. Additionally, the ATF had an active public relations department which spent several days prior to the raid calling media contacts and tipping them off that something big was in the works.

When the raid failed to produce the positive public relations footage they were expecting, the ATF and subsequently the FBI went into damage control mode. Reporters were now restricted to daily press briefings, with information being presented from a unified federal source. This insured that the only public view of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians was the official version of events. Given the death of four ATF agents in the initial raid, the official viewpoint of the Branch Davidians was decidedly biased. A number of instances involved reporters being forcibly arrested and equipment confiscated for violating the exclusionary zone. Reporters and news organizations complained internally about the restrictions, but no noticeable word of the FBI’s information management tactics or discussion of the one-sided nature of what was being reported appeared at the time in printed news articles.

News reporters often walk a fine line between depending on sources for information and being critical of those same sources. In Waco, what had started out as a working relationship between federal officials and reporters quickly became more antagonistic. One uncharacteristically harsh assessment appeared on March, 7, 1993 in an otherwise supportive news organization. U.S. News & World Report questioned the ATF’s survival as an independent entity in light of the disastrous initial raid. However, harsh critiques such as this were not the norm. A more common format illustrated the balance reporters were trying to strike.

An article entitled, “U.S. Pleads with Cult Leader to Let His Followers Go,” appeared in the March 6, 1993 New York Times. While the headline and the opening paragraphs were derived from daily press briefings and repeated the same official position labeling the Branch Davidians as a dangerous cult, cracks in this media-law enforcement consensus began to appear as the story progressed. FBI Agent in Charge Bob Hicks was quoted as saying that David Koresh wanted assurances about the safety of surrendering group members, including eventually his own. Hicks also said Koresh had repeatedly assured him there were no plans for a mass suicide. The story goes on to quote former military and law enforcement experts and their withering criticism of the ATF tactics used in the raid. The article concluded by comparing the Waco incident with the 1985 police raid against the MOVE organization in Philadelphia that also ended in a disastrous loss of life. Almost unnoticed in the closing paragraph is the critique that authorities had ignored numerous opportunities to arrest group members peacefully.

Hicks’ statements, attributed to Koresh and other group members, refuted the official assertion that the Branch Davidians harbored a death wish. This claim was initially made by both reporters and CAN commentators in the Waco Tribune-Herald series and subsequently relied on by federal planners in choosing the raid tactics that they did. Despite contrary evidence, officials and media sources continued to label the Branch Davidians as a suicide cult. Officials and the media both consistently invoked the specter of Jonestown and the mass suicide that occurred there in 1978. An example was a Newsweek article which claimed to be revealing secrets of the cult. Despite this claim, the article simply repeated the same titillating sexual misconduct accusations against David Koresh from the Waco Tribune-Herald article; while openly scoffing at the Branch Davidian’s belief system and emphatically stating they longed for a violent death. In the face of mounting questions about the entire federal operation, media sources seemed unwilling to question or refrain from inflammatory rhetoric directed at Koresh and the Branch Davidians.

Building on the New York Times method, it quickly became common for reporters to begin stories by repeating the long litany of accusations and lurid details that had been established in the Waco Tribune-Herald series, then scatter limited critiques of federal actions towards the end of lengthy articles. In a March 15, 1993 Time Magazine article entitled “Cult of Death,” the reporter used only the last couple of paragraphs to report growing questions about the ATF choice to storm the compound rather than quietly arresting members, including Koresh, who for years had been routinely living ordinary lives around town. In print media, placement means everything. Most readers will only read the opening paragraphs of a story. If the information there appears to be the same thing that has been reported elsewhere, then a reader is even less likely to continue with the article. Burying critiques of official performance towards the end of lengthy, often redundant, articles had only slightly more effect on the public then never mentioning concerns at all.

April 19, 1993 marked the fiery end to the Branch Davidian siege. Koresh and seventy-five of the Branch Davidians that remained in the compound died violently. FBI spokesmen, the U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, and even President Bill Clinton all expressed sympathies, while quickly pointing out that this was the ending the Branch Davidians had wished for. In a feature article entitled “The Last Days of David Koresh,” U.S. News & World Report reporters summed up the tragedy by repeating the same information about Koresh that had been reported from day one. They added to the claims about Koresh’s bizarre life style by writing that he engaged in wild orgies and parties throughout the fifty-one days of siege. Their source for this dubious rhetoric was Jesse Aman, an individual who federal officials had labeled deranged after he sneaked past the FBI cordon in early April and gained entrance into the compound.

The title of the article downplayed the fact that seventy-five people, over half of whom were women and children also experienced their last days at the same time as Koresh. It is also interesting that reporters would give credibility to claims that a man who had been shot in the groin, as Koresh had been during the initial raid, could continue to engage in wild sexual escapades. The entire tone of the U.S. News & World Report article seemed as if it was an attempt by the FBI to get out in front of the storm of criticism that was mounting against them. It goes into great detail about FBI agents purportedly agonizing over what to do in order to save the children inside the compound, but fails to critically question or evaluate the end result of FBI decisions; which is that the children along with everyone else trapped inside the compound on April 19, 1993 died a horrible death.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys face a common issue when they try their cases in a courtroom. Known in legal circles as, “fruits of the poisonous tree,” the issue revolves around the collection of evidence. Anything obtained illegally or in violation of constitutional protections cannot be used. Likewise, any information that develops as a result of this poisonous evidence can also not be used. Evidence collected or cited by the media is not constrained by these same restrictions. In the case of the Branch Davidians, the evidence presented by the initial Waco Tribune-Herald series was flawed by any measure. It presented biased testimony as fact. Reporters presented inflammatory rhetoric from CAN and other peripheral participants as if it was uncontested, when in fact the viewpoints and theories expressed were very controversial. Reporters also mislead the public over the extent of official investigations into the allegations against the Branch Davidians by insinuating that there had been little or no official actions. In fact, numerous state agencies investigated a wide variety of claims over a period of years and found no grounds to bring charges against either Koresh or the Branch Davidians.

Many of the series’ unproven allegations were also repeated as facts in Senate hearings. Charles Schumer (D), who was the ranking Senator on the panel investigating federal actions at Waco, cited the Waco Tribune-Herald directly in both his 1995 comments and in follow-up hearings as late as 2000. His purpose was to categorically condemn Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Despite internal and external investigations that directed withering criticism at federal agencies involved in the crisis, it was never without first repeating the allegations against the Branch Davidians laid out in the initial Waco Tribune-Herald series. Ultimately, the media would accuse, try, and convict David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who never lived to answer formal charges in a court of law. Despite the poisoned nature of media evidence, it continued to inform official and public perception of the Branch Davidians to the exclusion of all else.

4 comments:

  1. Very well written. Good post.

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  2. Paul,
    I find it amazing how reports twist the facts at times.
    Great post. Tragic events that took place at Waco..
    xoxo
    Jessica

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  3. It makes me wonder if the outcome would have been different had the media and government handled things differently.

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  4. I still think that Waco sounds very familiar to Wacko... But yes of course the mainstream media will inevitably be controlled by those with reasons to do what they do. Be it Religious, Money, Fear, Control!

    Cheers mate A

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