Media: Everyone wants to talk to the 'Messiah': In Waco, Texas, religious cult members in a stand-off with the FBI are also on the media's most-wanted list. Peter Pringle reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN A rare bout of self-criticism, one of those supremely confident, know-everything American radio talk-show hosts apologised on air last week for fooling the public. 'We were duped,' admitted Ron Engleman, of the Dallas station KGBS.

A woman calling herself 'Sue' had phoned the show from 'a secret location' claiming to be a member of the heavily armed Branch Davidian cult. The fundamentalist group has been under siege at its compound near Waco, Texas, since 28 February following a failed assault by federal agents in which four agents and at least two cult members were killed.

'Sue' said a lot of things about herself and spoke in support of the cult and its leader, David Koresh, offering him money any time he wanted it.

As it turned out, she was not a member of the group, Mr Engleman discovered. She was a phoney. Cult members called the radio station saying no such 'Sue' was ever part of the group.

Since the shoot-out, the American media has been preoccupied with finding cult followers who know about the weird and dangerous ways of Mr Koresh, and before the apology it seemed that KGBS had a scoop. To the FBI, however, the radio station's efforts were another example of the media interfering in official attempts to negotiate with Mr Koresh and end the siege without further bloodshed.

The FBI's criticism has raised questions about how the media should operate during an armed stand-off. For example, should journalists make 'deals' with besieged cult leaders or hostage- takers, agreeing to on-air statements or appeals in exchange for promises of an end to the stand- off?

The Waco siege began with such a deal. Mr Koresh said that if a local radio station carried his 'message from God' he would surrender. The FBI thought it was a good idea at the time, but the plan failed. The message was aired, but Mr Koresh reneged on his promise.

Since then, the FBI has blocked all calls to the compound and appealed to journalists not to have any contact with the cult's followers on the grounds that this would only help Mr Koresh.

'He loves attention,' said Bob Ricks, an FBI Special Agent. 'He wants to put out his message, and the longer he feels he is able to capture the attention nationwide and is successful in getting his message out, the longer we believe he will continue to hold out.'

What especially irritated the FBI was that Mr Engleman found a way to communicate with Mr Koresh despite the blocked phone lines. On his KGBS show, he told Mr Koresh to hang a sign out of a window if he needed to tell the media anything. 'If you hear us, if you want our help and want us to come down, hang out a sheet,' he said. A few minutes later a white sheet appeared out of a window with the message: 'God Help us, we want the press.'

Mr Engleman made much of his 'contact' on his radio show and later turned up at a police checkpoint near the compound with two doctors, one of whom had been a military medic, and asked to be allowed to enter. He was turned away.

Since then Mr Engleman, who says the FBI's complaint about him is 'a bunch of garbage', has argued on his show that Mr Koresh is being denied his civil rights. He says Mr Koresh should be described as a 'religious leader', not a kook, and the Branch Davidians should be called a sect, not a cult. Mr Engleman has continued to 'talk' to Mr Koresh through his radio programme and Mr Koresh has responded again with another sheet asking for a lawyer.

All this infuriates the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which lost the four men in the shoot-out. Mr Ricks has warned the media to stop what he called its 'sidebar interviews' with former Branch Davidian followers. These interviews are the job of the FBI, he said.

Underscoring the point, the FBI issued arrest warrants for two former cult followers who had been talking to the press. One of them, Paul Fatta, who was not in the compound at the time of the raid and who also spoke from an 'undisclosed location', said he was not sure what his legal status was and whether the FBI wanted to arrest him. He told the New York Times that he thought getting the media involved could help end the siege.

Whether such interviews and Mr Engleman's efforts have prolonged the stand-off is impossible to estimate until the drama ends and Mr Koresh has his day in court. In the meantime, it is clear that Mr Engleman has been successful in generating a great deal of attention for his radio show.

(Photograph omitted)