Monday, August 22, 1977

Son of Sam Case Poses Thorny Issues for Press

Among the issues were:

The degree to which constitutional guarantees of press freedom imply unstated responsibilities.
The difference between reporting and exploiting the news.
The propriety of reporters’ becoming part of the story they are covering.
The conflict between the public’s right to a fair trial.
The question of reporters’ violating the law to obtain information.
The ethics of news organizations’ paying for information, letters, diaries or interviews.

Like the case itself, which resulted in the largest manhunt in the city’s history, the story built slowly.

It began July 29, 1976, when 18-year-old Donna Lauria was shot and killed as she sat in an automobile double-parked in front of her Bronx home. A girlfriend was wounded in the attack.

Over the next eight months, the gunman struck four times, killing two and wounding three others. When the police announced – following the shooting of Virginia Voskerichian in Queens last March – that the crimes were the work of an individual, press attention and public interest rose sharply.

Another note, sent to Jimmy Breslin, a columnist for The Daily News, stimulated attention and interest beyond what anything that had proceeded it when it was published in his column on June 5th. According to Mr. Breslin, the column was written after consultation with the police, who thought it might encourage the killer to write again and leave a clearer set of fingerprints.

On June 26, he struck again. Wounding a young man and a young woman. Two weeks later, Mayor Beame stepped in front of television cameras to say that, in light of the approaching anniversary of Ms. Lauria’s death, he was adding detectives to the “Son of Sam” case.

The Mayor’s statement tended to reinforce the growing – but highly speculative – perception that the killer would strike again on the anniversary.

On July 28, Breslin’s column header: “To the .44 Caliber Killer On His 1st Deathday,” “Is tomorrow so significant to him that he must go out and find a victim?”

On July 29th, the anniversary, The Post ran the headline: “GUNMAN SPARKS SON OF SAM CHASE” over a story detailing a police pursuit of a man with a gun walking long the Cross Bronx Expressway. At the bottom of the story readers were informed that: police say the mystery gunman was definitely not Son of Sam. “NO ONE IS SAFE FROM SON OF SAM!” Post headline the day after the Moscowitz shooting. MOBSTERS JOIN THE HUNT three days later.

While many aspects of the story warranted front-page attention by any standards of news judgment, the two city tabloids – and Rupert Murdoch’s Post in particular – were widely criticized for sensationalizing the story to boost circulation.

Even before the capture of David Berkowitz, The New Yorker said that “just about everything done by the press here – especially by the Post and the News – has made a bad situation worse for the residents of New York. By transforming a killer into a celebrity, the press has not merely encourage but perhaps driven him to strike again – any may have stirred others brooding madly over their grievances to act.”

Post response: “If it offends the delicate sensibilities of the Algonquin crowd, so be it.”

Another matter touched upon by The New Yorker article concerned the various appeals made by Pete Hamil and Mr. Breslin, Daily News columnists and Steve Dunleavy of The Post for the killer to turn himself into them or their newspaper.
(Section that follows lifted by Klausner in his book).

Perhaps the most egregious journalistic liberty was taken by The Post on August 15, when, under a black headling “HOW I BECAME A MASS KILLER” – it carried, in bold letters, the byline: “By David Berkowitz.” The “story” was in fact a series of letters the suspect had written some years before. (Letter bought from the ex-girlfriend for a few hundred bucks). $500 Post and only $200 News.

Excerpt from Carey Winfrey Aug 22, 1977 New York Times

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