During the longest prison hostage situation in U.S. history, a virtual media blackout took place last year in Arizona when state officials pressured the media to withhold information about prison-guard hostages and the inmates who held them against their will.
In a rare and controversial action, the media complied, choosing to believe the state’s claim that publishing or airing detailed information might lead to the deaths of the two guards. The prison standoff that took place in January 2004 ended without bloodshed, though not without violence.
The Arizona scenario contrasted with an 11-day prison takeover 10 years earlier that ended after a dozen guards were held hostage, and one guard and nine inmates were killed. That episode took place at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. At the time, state officials and media analysts said the bloody takeover in Ohio grew more deadly partly because of the way the media covered the event.
In contrast, Arizona state officials praised the local media for not fanning the fires during coverage of the prison hostage scenario and ultimately helping create a peaceful conclusion. Such accolades from governmental sources, however, made many journalists involved feel compromised.
On Jan. 18, 2004, inmates Ricky Wassenaar and Steven Coy overpowered a corrections officer and a civilian kitchen employee, locking up an inmate kitchen crew at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis near Buckeye. After being chased and pepper-sprayed by correctional officers, the two inmates managed to take over the prison guard observation tower and overcome the two officers on duty. Wassenaar, then 40, serving 28 years for armed robbery and assault, and Coy, then 39, sentenced to life for armed robbery, aggravated assault and rape, remained in charge of the highly fortified guard tower until they handed themselves over to authorities Feb. 1. They released the male guard Jan. 24 but held the female guard until the day they surrendered.
After the surrender, Wassenaar said the hostage situation was a botched escape effort from the 4,150-bed prison.
Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner wrote dozens of stories on the takeover.
“Put yourself in the shoes of the publisher or news director,” Wagner said. “You know the person in the tower, you have questions, the governor’s office is not giving any information. They’re telling you virtually nothing. But they’re asking you not to report what you find out and not to investigate. Your first instinct is, ’Hell, no.’ Then they say, ’If you publish (names and other information) our negotiators, our experts, tell us there’s a very good likelihood that these hostages will be killed.’
“It’s just as possible to me that the failure of publishing information may get them killed. But if it’s a one in 1,000 chance that publishing the information may get them killed, do you take that chance?”
Beth DeFalco is a reporter for The Associated Press. She was one of dozens of reporters who spent day and night across the freeway from the prison during the standoff. She said she felt conflicted about withholding information from her readers.
“I think the readers had a lot of questions about what was going on,” DeFalco said. “Not knowing what was going on in the tower made them think the worst was happening.”
Most of the print stories included boilerplate language explaining to their readers that the reason more information was not forthcoming was because of potential dangers to the hostages.
DeFalco said that although she worried about shortchanging her readers, ultimately she did not have a problem with withholding information during the takeover because she did not want to be responsible for the deaths of the hostages.
“We’re all human first, and our careers come second,” she said. “I don’t think anyone in my office was interested in doing anything that would endanger the lives of those guards.”
John Faherty, crime, justice and breaking-news editor at The Arizona Republic, said that discussions were frequent between the state and the newspaper.
“The state had conversations with the paper at the highest levels. I was not privy to those conversations,” he said.
The newsroom received a directive from Republic management that no story was to identify either the inmates or hostages in the tower or to interview any of their relatives.
“We were told repeatedly and strenuously the hostages were in immediate danger if we disclosed the information,” Faherty said. “But ultimately, of course, it was us who decided to withhold information.”
After the surrender, the media did provide names and backgrounds of the guards and hostages to the public.
“Based on the information we had, we made the right decisions,” Faherty said. “I have no doubt about that.”
But John Dougherty, a reporter for the Phoenix New Times weekly newspaper, said the media’s cooperation with the state was no less than scary.
“I’m very concerned about setting a dangerous precedent of prior restraint,” he said.
Because of the timing of the hostage scenario and the New Times weekly publication schedule, the newspaper did not do much coverage of the event. But that did not keep Dougherty from criticizing the way others reported the developing story.
“To not release information slows down the process of gathering more information. The threats were already in place. How is the release of names going to add to that threat and endanger more?”
Dougherty compared the state’s refusal to release inmate and hostage information to the George W. Bush Administration telling the media not to publish photos of American soldiers’ bodies returning to the U.S.
“We’re not part of the government,” he said. “This smacks of complete and utter manipulation of the situation.”
Donna Hamm, a prisoner rights advocate and founder of Middle Ground Prison Reform, took part in a panel discussion about the incident three months after the takeover. Hamm, who sat on the Society of Professional Journalists’ panel called “Locked Out: The Ethics of Withholding Information at Government’s Request” with both Dougherty and Wagner, said the media cooperation “smacks of state control of the Fourth Estate.”
She pointed out that no state officials attended the panel discussion. She called the relationship between the media and the state a “love fest” during the prison hostage situation, with both sides acting as if everything was “hunky-dory.”
“I felt it was the media’s responsibility to explain to me why the release of information would cause someone’s death,” said Hamm, adding that not publishing names of the prisoners meant fear for families of all the Lewis Complex prisoners.
“The statement was far too general for me. How would putting the names out into the public piss them off? Later we found out (the prisoners) were requesting media contact.”
At one point during negotiations, state officials allowed Wassenaar to be interviewed by a KTAR-AM radio reporter in an exclusive interview. The interview was used in negotiations for the female officer’s release. It aired after the surrender.
“It was initially an escape attempt. We were on our way out,” Wassenaar told KTAR-AM radio. “This was a stopping point to get some arms, firearms, to get out of here. Unfortunately, the plan went bad.”
KTAR station manager Brian Barks said that prison officials had allowed an interview in exchange for the guard’s release. He added, however, that his station would not run the interview until after the surrender, and that it had to be in exchange for the guard’s freedom.
“We made it clear that we would not … air the interview until the hostage was released because we didn’t want it done just in exchange for a toothbrush and a bar of soap,” he said. “Doing this stuff, we’re injecting ourselves into the story and becoming part of the story, and I was very uncomfortable with that, but it helped get somebody out, so I was willing to do it.”
He said the KTAR reporter who interviewed Wassenaar was free to ask any question he wanted, but was briefed by negotiators beforehand who asked him not to use certain words such as “surrender” and “give up,” which might make the inmates feel they were relinquishing their power and then want to back down from negotiations. The state did not see the interview questions before the reporter talked with Wassenaar, Barks said.
Barks added that he was concerned that listeners might feel that the station “was in the governor’s pocket” because it was cooperating with the state’s wishes.
“It certainly gave the impression that we were working with the state as a team when we’re supposed to be the objective eyes and ears,” he said “One thing that I wish that we would have done was been candid with our listeners and said, ’OK, we’re withholding information because it is felt that releasing it could jeopardize the safety and the negotiations.’ ”
Barks said the station’s decisions were made with his input by the program director and general manager, who consulted their corporate attorneys. He added that while he was uncomfortable playing a part in the negotiations, he would do it again.
“I don’t want to be responsible for putting something on the air just for putting information on the air first if that could jeopardize someone’s life,” he said. “That’s just not worth it. I know there are going to be people in the business who disagree.”
One print reporter who said she felt “a heavy responsibility” regarding the guards’ lives said she could understand the state not wanting to release some information, but did not fathom the extent that the state kept things under wraps.
“(Prison officials) said they wouldn’t release the names, and we understood that, but we just wanted to know what they were in for,” said Ananda Shorey, an AP reporter. “We were hoping to get some sort of description of the officers. Not their names, but their ages. Did they have kids? Any sort of information to let us know who’s in there? …Just to have details so you can sort of feel their pain as someone who’s a human being, a friend, as somebody other than just a title.”
Wagner, of the Republic, said not reporting who the inmates were may have in fact lengthened the takeover. State reports show that Ricky Wassenaar asked from Day One of the standoff to talk with the media as part of negotiations. That information was not made public until after the surrender.
“In the final analysis, the question of whether the media saved those lives or not isn’t really resolved,” Wagner said. “Did we help those hostages from being killed? Or did we help sustain negotiations much longer than they needed to go on? It’s arguably possible that if we would have had contact and public information, the thing wouldn’t have gone on for 15 days. It’s also arguably possible that we would have published the (information), and a life would have been taken. The resolution is unanswerable. But there was intense pressure. State officials going to editors, going to news directors and saying, ’You shouldn’t do this.’ ”
New Times’ Dougherty added that he’s concerned about this happening in the future with other information the state doesn’t want released.
“We’re still extremely concerned about it setting a precedent about blacking out other events in the future under the guise of safety issues or people hurt when we have no clear indication that that was the case,” he said.
For Cam Hunter, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, not only were there strong reasons for withholding information from the media, there was little to convince her to let the information flow.
“There was no compelling reason to release information to the public. There was no public safety risk. It was confined to one building in the prison. We didn’t even have other staff being threatened. It was a confined situation,” she said. “The guidance that the Department of Corrections used on what could or could not be released was based on what the negotiators were telling us and what we knew about the inmates. We knew they were seeking notoriety. That’s huge. We knew they were listening to the radio. Anything we let go out on the air had a potential impact on their behavior and the outcome and treatment of the hostages and the release of the hostages.”
The state knew the inmates had access to a radio because one was sent up to the guard tower on the first day of the takeover as part of negotiations. That fact was not released to the media until after the surrender.
Hunter, who stepped into the job just two weeks before the hostage incident began, disagreed with the media’s perception that the state imposed a “blackout” of information.
“I have discomfort calling it a blackout,” she said. “The media knew the first and second day the identification of the inmates and hostages, they knew a sexual assault had occurred, the media listened to the scanner traffic that we were unable to scramble,” she said.
She acknowledged that the state would not confirm that information for the journalists.
“It was really the media that imposed their own blackout,” Hunter said.
While the final outcome in Arizona was a positive one in that nobody lost their lives (though both the female guard and a female kitchen worker were raped by Coy), cooperating with the state was not always comfortable for many Arizona journalists.
“There were some unbelievably ironic moments,” said the Republic’s Wagner. “When the first hostage was released, (Department of Corrections Director Dora) Schriro said to all of us (journalists), ’We did this together, and I want to thank you all for being part of a team.’ I wanted to crawl into a hole.”
Michael Murphy, a former Phoenix Gazette and Arizona Republic reporter and now communications director for the Arizona Department of Health Services, was on loan to the Arizona Department of Corrections during the hostage incident. While he understood that reporters don’t relish that kind of praise from their sources, he was impressed with the Arizona media.
“Compared to Lucasville, it was pretty amazing in terms of how the media policed themselves,” he said.
“I thought it was an incredibly wonderful display of the best in media ethics,” she said. “As difficult as this event was — it wasn’t just a two- to three-hour event, but a protracted event, a 24-hour-a-day thing — all those reporters came from newsrooms with in-depth discussions about what to do. They determined the ethical path they were going to take for self-policing.”
Hunter said that the prison uprising in Ohio 10 years earlier reflected the worst in journalism.
“In Lucasville, the bottom line is that hostages were killed when inmates took offense at how their negotiation requests were discussed in the media,” she said.
Arizona officials shared the 1994 Columbia Journalism Review article with journalists early on to show what can happen with poor reporting during a crisis situation.
“They made the point that, ’Hey, you don’t think we’re taking this seriously; we’ll show you how serious we are,’ and people died,” Hunter said.
Barks, of KTAR radio, said that one of the people his station interviewed was a former guard of the Lucasville Prison who was held captive during the 1994 takeover.
“It was (the guard’s) belief that at Lucasville people did get killed because information was being made public,” Barks said.
During the Ohio prison uprising, reporters included rumors in their stories, including highly exaggerated numbers of body counts.
“I was pretty embarrassed with our profession,” the CJR article quoted Bill Warnock, publisher of the Scioto County Community Common twice-weekly newspaper. “They did everything we’re told not to do — run speculation and hearsay, print rumors.”
The CJR article “The Lucasville Follies” by Bruce Porter said the media were so frustrated with the lack of facts released that they reported false information, including one television correspondent who reported the body count to be 172, a far cry from the actual number of 10.
“The Acron Beacon Journal ran a front-page story quoting an anonymous source as saying that (a guard who had in fact been murdered) had been mutilated, that his eyes had been gouged out, that his back, arms and legs had been broken, and that his tongue had been cut out — all untrue,” Porter wrote.
Such reporting had extremely negative effects both inside and outside the prison walls. Inmates believed the false information had been planted by the state to make them look bad.
Frank Lewis, a radio reporter, was greatly criticized for being the first in the Ohio takeover to trade free airtime for the release of a hostage.
“What I learned more than anything through all this is (is that) it’s certainly not hard to make a decision on whether you’re going to have journalistic integrity or save a life,” Lewis reflected.
Ten years later, Barks echoed those words.
“For me, Priority One was that nobody got hurt,” said the Phoenix radio station manager. “Somebody’s life is much more valuable than telling the story. If that makes me a bad journalist, then I guess that makes me a bad one. But I would like to think it makes me a better person.”
Mary Tolan has been a journalist in New Mexico and Arizona for nearly 20 years, working on staff newspapers and freelancing for magazines and newspapers throughout the West. She is an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
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