Can Television Catch 22?

A few days ago, the anti-terror war was ratcheted up another notch with the deployment of one of the most exotic assets in the U.S. arsenal—the Fox network. With the full cooperation of the White House, last Friday there was a special prime-time broadcast of  “America’s Most Wanted” focusing on the 22 men recently declared by the U.S. government to be the most wanted terrorists in the world.  

Now, it’s unlikely that Osama Bin Laden will be caught by a tip phoned in by a motel night manager in Yuma, Ariz., who thinks something about the tall dark guy in 317 just doesn’t add up. Nevertheless, putting the show on the problem was a smart move. (Actually, the show was already on the problem, having previously done segments on Bin Laden and other top at-large terrorists.)  That’s because since AMW first aired in 1988, tips it has elicited have led to the arrest of 683 fugitives, most of them wanted for violent crimes. The 683rd arrestee, who had used 27 aliases to remain on the loose for four years, was caught after being featured on the show for about 8 seconds. Earlier this year, AMW played a key role in the capture of several of the “Texas Seven” prison escapees, who had eluded police across the nation for more than a month. And the show has demonstrated global reach, leading to the apprehension, for instance, of murderers in Italy, Colombia, and Guatemala.  

Friday’s broadcast was not just about Bin Laden and his top lieutenants, but also about the Hezbollah terrorist thought to be behind the 1983 bombings in Beirut of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks, the murder of the Beirut CIA station chief, and the TWA airliner hijacking in which a U.S. Navy passenger was murdered; about one of the plotters of the first World Trade Center attack; about 13 suspects in the Kenya and Tanzania U.S. embassy bombings; about one of the masterminds of a never-realized plot to blow up 11 airliners over the Pacific simultaneously; and about four men suspected of being part of the gang that blew up the Khobar Towers U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. And there were two Americans featured as well—perhaps served up as ethno-demographic palate cleansers, or to give host John Walsh a break from the challenges of Arabic pronunciations (all of which he handled smoothly)—both wanted in connection with bombings or threatened bombings of abortion clinics and one of whom is also sought for the bombing at the Atlanta Olympic Games.  

Over the years the show has relied on two main devices: re-enactment of the crime and a vivid characterization of the victims. Although re-enactment has long since become anathema in mainstream TV news, it has obvious utility in the criminal-catching game: Seeing a visual representation of a sequence of events can help stimulate the memories of witnesses. And although biographies that start off, “On the day she was stabbed to death, Barbara Smith’s future couldn’t have been brighter …” naturally set off one’s BS detector, they also help remind viewers that every crime is a tragedy deserving the assistance of those with information.  

The special anti-terrorism broadcast departed quite a bit from these formulas.  For video filler, the show relied not on re-enactment but on some footage of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center explosions and, more frequently, on shots of bodies and parts of bodies at the scenes of other terrorist crimes. There were also intermittent shots of soldiers and cops at various (often unexplained) locales. The two trends converged with the use of unidentified video of an armored vehicle proceeding down a dusty trail when it’s suddenly blown up and bodies fly everywhere. The only re-creation footage was a brief but pointless sequence of a man jumping over a fence used for the segment on one of the Americans, a prison escapee. 

And with two brief exceptions—Walsh’s mention that the average age of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center victims was 39 and that they left behind an estimated 10,000 widows and orphans, and a brief sad comment from the mother of someone still missing after being kidnapped by Filipino terrorists—the show didn’t try to tug at the audience’s heart strings. This was no doubt because it’s impossible to vivify over 5,000 victims and because at this point it’s also unnecessary.   

The emotion the show was more in tune with was bloodlust. Walsh referred to the wanted men as “cowards,” “lowlifes,” “demons,” and “psycho.” He twice said that the show would run a terrorist down “like the dog he is.” I understand this emotion and in fact, don’t even disagree with the thought behind it—that these terrorists are unconditionally evil—but I’m not sure I see the point of giving it time on a show that’s trying to catch them. Ditto for letting Attorney General John Ashcroft squander most of a segment delivering the bulletin that we can’t let the terrorists win (and oh, by the way, making a pitch for more law enforcement “resources”). Almost all Americans are already motivated—what we need is information. A typical AMW is chockablock with little details about fugitives’ habits and characteristics, and I’m sure these are a key part of the show’s fabulous success. But aside from height and weight, for the most part such details were missing from the terrorist show. Yes, we were told that one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers still on the loose was born in Bloomington, Ind., lived in Jersey City, N.J., takes medicine for epilepsy, and may have a chemical burn on his right thigh, but those were the only such specific personal details given out about any of the Middle Eastern terrorists depicted. Now, perhaps those are the only details anybody in government knows about any of them. But I doubt it—the show, after all, included close-up pictures of all of them, and it stands to reason that the people who took those pictures knew more about them than America learned last Friday night.  

My understanding is that ordinarily producers at AMW have access to the complete law-enforcement case file on the people they’re hunting. I conclude that the access wasn’t quite that good for the terrorist special. And I’m guessing that’s because much of the relevant information was developed by U.S. intelligence rather than U.S. law enforcement. For the sequel—and most AMW-driven captures take more than one broadcast—let’s hope there’s a better information flow.