Media Keeps Lid On Kidnapping p.11

By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ A LOS ANGELES police lieutenant recently took a chance that the media would agree to keep a lid on a child kidnapping case if he asked them to.
He guessed right, and the story was held until the child was returned safely to his mother.
In reporting the episode, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Boyarsky wrote: "Police Lt. Anthony Alba knew reporters didn't believe him when he first denied there had been a kidnapping at the Simms' house. 'I've been in police work 29 years, and I can read faces,'" he said.
So Alba, the LAPD's top press officer, gambled that, for the safety of the victim, the media would go along in holding the story if he admitted there had been a kidnapping.
When 7-year-old Matthew Simms had been snatched from his Sherman Oaks home, reporters monitoring police communications believed there had been a kidnapping.
But detectives, according to Alba, asked him to tell the press it was a home-invasion robbery. What actually happened was that two masked gunmen forced their way into the boy's home and fled with Matthew after ordering his mother and a maid to lie on the floor.
Wrote Boyarsky: "All the ingredients of an L.A. media show were coming together, and, in a town where television goes crazy over a routine traffic chase, this would have been gigantic."
But the show was stopped by Alba's deal with the media. The cop told Boyarsky that round-the-clock coverage by television and radio stations might have panicked the kidnappers, thereby jeopardizing the boy's life.
"They might have thought they were in over their heads, and they would have had to get rid of the kid. The kid was the evidence," Alba added.
Following the press conference, Alba and other officers also contacted newspaper editors and broadcast managers with the same request and got their compliance.
The news blackout lasted 18 hours ? until a woman, who lived in the house where the abductors were keeping Matthew, spirited him to a nearby hospital while they were sleeping. Ransom demands previously had been sent to the boy's family.
The pact between the police and the media was not unprecedented, but it does not happen often. Twenty years ago, there was a brief news embargo on the Patty Hearst kidnapping.
"You have to take these things case by case," said Times editor Shelby Coffey III. "Our basic urge as journalists is to present just about everything we know. But I don't have any hesitation in saying we did the right thing. The key point was the question of a human life at stake."
Alba commented to Boyarsky: "I took a big chance and thank God everyone went along with it. It was the right call, and I really credit the media for this kid getting back to his parents unharmed."


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