Can a TV show win the war?

The White House has enlisted John Walsh and "America's Most Wanted" to bring the appropriate "scumbags" to justice -- and provide resources the government doesn't have.

Published October 20, 2001 9:30PM (EDT)

The Thursday afternoon briefing proceeded normally, in what passes for normal in the new post-9/11 world. In the Postal Service Processing and Distribution Center in Washington, Postmaster General Jack Potter introduced three officials to discuss a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for mailing anthrax.

The press briefing then turned to Potter's three-man team: Chief Postal Inspector Ken Weaver, FBI deputy director Thomas Pickard ... and John Walsh, the gritty host of "America's Most Wanted."

Walsh has emerged as almost an honorary Bush administration official in the last week, a deputy attorney general for tracking down scumbags. At a time of tension between the Bush administration and the media, Walsh has played an official role in two government events where the government -- desperate for any information in its various criminal investigations -- has sought help from the general public.

On Oct. 10, after Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the list of 22 "most wanted terrorists," Walsh was drafted by the White House communications staff into rush-producing a special episode of "America's Most Wanted." And Fox Television, which had preempted all episodes of the show until November because of the Major League Baseball playoffs, bumped the premiere of one of its new dramas, "Pasadena," in order to broadcast the special show. A cynic could easily argue that of course the administration loves Walsh and his show, since all he does is provide a dramatized version of crimes from law enforcement's point of view, in this case, serving as little more than a mouthpiece for the Fed. But with crimes as clearly defined morally as terrorist attacks, and law enforcement so apparently befuddled, it's entirely possible that drafting Walsh to help fight the war on terrorism was one of the smartest media moves the Bush administration has made.

On another level, however, the very fact that Walsh has been brought in speaks volumes about the lack of preparedness of our federal government in reacting to terrorist attacks. Walsh was not brought in to air a special episode on anthrax mailings. Rather, Walsh had offered the Postal Service use of his show's tip line (1-800-CRIME-TV), with its 30 operators staffed to manage a barrage of phone calls. That's key -- because the U.S. Postal Service itself doesn't have the phone bank infrastructure to receive tips about the anthrax mailings.

"As many of you know," Walsh said on Thursday in his familiar, all-business, tough-guy voice, every salt-and-pepper hair in place, "last week a very unique partnership was formed. I think this was the first time that an administration and federal law enforcement had asked a television program to profile terrorists and interrupt regular programming."

More than 1,600 tips had come in since the Friday, Oct. 12 airing, Walsh said, "some of them even coming from the [United] Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia." The show is specifically broadcast in the United States, Canada, England, New Zealand and Japan. But the show's producers believe that it is seen in some parts of the Arab world since they know of other viewers with satellite dishes around the globe -- most famously a schoolteacher in Thailand who saw an episode and in August 2001 helped track down Eric Rosser, a former keyboardist for John Mellencamp who was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for the production and dissemination of child pornography.

After last Thursday's press conference, the "America's Most Wanted" phone lines "were jammed for four hours," says Avery Mann, a spokesman for the show. An FBI spokesman said he couldn't comment on the quality of any of the leads, but "anything is better than nothing. There are probably a lot of them that will not go anywhere, but all it takes is one to lead you to the person."

In announcing the list of the 22 most wanted terrorists on Oct. 10, President Bush said, "Terrorism has a face, and today we expose it for the world to see." Perhaps no one in America has more experience than Walsh when it comes to exposing the faces of criminals to the masses. As cheesy as Walsh's role can be -- "We're saddling up and going to go out and try to get some of these scumbags," Walsh said on Fox News Channel on Oct. 11, publicizing the show about the top 22 terrorists -- law enforcement officials say that the show's success speaks for itself.

"It's one of the more effective tools law enforcement has," says Rex Tomb, the FBI's chief of the Fugitive Publicity Special Services unit. "It's the single most efficient way we can communicate with large numbers of the American public."

Since the show's launch in 1988, "America's Most Wanted" has been responsible for the capture of 683 fugitives -- a figure Tomb says is a conservative estimate. "They're very careful about that," Tomb insists, saying that Walsh and the show's producers do not take credit if there is any question about how central a role the show played in a particular capture. "They've said it many times, 'We don't want to have our credibility attacked, we want to be conservative about it.'"

Walsh's decades-long mission to alert the public about fugitives -- launched after the abduction and murder of his 6-year-old son Adam in 1981 -- officially began with his push for the Missing Children Act of 1982, which provided a central computer file on missing children, as well as some follow-up legislation two years later. His crusade was taken into your living room with the creation of his TV show six years later.

Those who know Walsh say that his dedication to job is a direct result of his personal tragedy. "I know John really well; he's totally committed to what he does," says Tomb. "What happened to him I think would really cripple a lot of people."

Law enforcement had tried other means of publicizing fugitives, Tomb says, including the famous Ten Most Wanted list, posters at the post office, and working with various wire reporters. Efram Zimbalist Jr. would end episodes of "The FBI" with news about wanted men. But never before had a specific show been dedicated to informing the citizenry about specific bad guys on the lam, forming a sort of national Neighborhood Watch.

Based on the BBC's monthly "Crime Watch U.K.," the show premiered on Feb. 7, 1988, on only seven Fox-owned stations. Each criminal profile would show the criminal's mug shot, list distinguishing characteristics, and stage a reenactment of the crime. Walsh hosted.

A review in Legal Times said that the show provides "a morbid, voyeuristic glimpse into the seamy underside of American life, where grisly dramas are played out in trailer parks, 7-11s, and biker bars across the country. The show relentlessly stigmatizes, as it panders to, the ill-educated and the dispossessed. Although Walsh always adds a disclaimer toward the end of each segment, saying that the subject 'has not stood trial for any crimes shown here,' the message is: suspects are criminals and criminals shouldn't be coddled with liberal attempts to understand their crimes."

But whether or not some critics found the show reactionary, police found it effective. The show's first episode told the story of David James Roberts, who had burned an Indiana couple and their infant child to death after the husband had witnessed Roberts stealing tires. Roberts had been convicted of the murders, but had escaped from prison. After the show aired, tips came in. The show's operators record all information provided to them and pass it all on to the relevant authorities; one of the tips led the FBI to a homeless shelter on Staten Island where Roberts was known as a selfless coordinator. He was arrested four days after the show ran.

Within its first 10 weeks, the show had led to the capture of six fugitives, and its ratings were successful enough for the then-fledgling Fox to move the show to prime time, so it was seen on 118 different affiliates. Critics would argue that the show treads a shakier line when dealing with suspects, rather than escapees. But the success rate was no less effective. FBI Director William Sessions appeared on the May 29, 1988, episode to announce three new additions to the FBI Top Ten Most Wanted list.

The show's third snag came after Lt. Ray Biondi of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department told the show's producers about Paul Mack, who was wanted for questioning in the 1977 poisoning death of a California beauty queen. Though there had been no trial, the March 20, 1988, show staged a dramatization of Biondi's theory about how Mack killed the young woman in question. (The producers are careful not to specifically state that an individual has committed a specific crime, but implications are pretty strong.)

Walsh told the audience details about Mack. "He is obsessed with fresh breath," Walsh said. "He's always chewing Certs." 170 tips came in. One panned out and Mack was caught in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"I always say the devil is in the details, and how we catch people on 'America's Most Wanted' is we do something more than just show their pictures," Walsh said on Fox News last week. "We talk about their idiosyncrasies, we talk about where they've been, what they've done. For example, Osama bin Laden is left-handed. He uses a cane sometimes."

In 1996, Fox Television pulled the plug on the show because of middling ratings, its high demand for original shows (50 a year instead of about half that for most other shows), and the relative worthlessness of its reruns.

But the show was responsible for more than 400 captures at that point, and there was a huge hue and cry from law enforcement and government officials. A full two-thirds of the nation's governors and officials from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms filed official protests. The show returned to the air six weeks later, on Nov. 9, 1996, with a new name -- "The New America's Most Wanted: America Fights Back" -- and with Walsh given freer reign to rant against "the criminal injustice system." The first show back told the story of Alan Eugene White, 26, accused of a triple murder in Kansas. A homeless shelter worker recognized White and called the show. A little more than an hour after the show aired, White was in handcuffs.

With the injustice of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks so stark, it was then perhaps only natural that two weeks ago, when the White House communications staff was discussing their rollout of their 22 most wanted terrorists list, Scott Sforza, a deputy communications director, would think of Walsh. Sforza called STF Productions and was patched through to Walsh on his cellphone. Walsh gladly agreed to help out in the crusade against Osama bin Laden and "his fanatic, psycho buddies," as Walsh put it on CNN. The episode was filmed on White House grounds and included an interview with Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"If you've seen these creeps, if you sold them a gun, if you sold them a pipe, if you rented them a car, if you rented them a truck, call 'America's Most Wanted,'" Walsh said on CNN. "A lot of people are afraid to call the police. They're afraid their phones will be tapped or traced. People call 'America's Most Wanted' because they trust us. You can remain anonymous."

The show averages between 9 million and 13 million viewers an episode, spokesman Mann says. But the special episode scored only 7.2 million viewers, soundly beaten by the "Dateline: NBC" that featured Stone Phillips interviewing an angry Tom Brokaw about the anthrax letter that infected his personal assistant. Whether or not the 22 terrorists are conceivably within the viewership area of his show -- "Of course, you don't know that they're not," Tomb says -- and regardless of whether Walsh's style is your cup of tea, one fact remains astoundingly clear: Walsh provides a valuable public service.

Frighteningly so at times. Speaking of Abdul Rahman Yasin, the Bloomington, Ind.-born top 22 terrorist wanted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Walsh noted during an interview on Fox News Channel that his show's publicity about Yasin had already merited some new information. Yasin's brother called "America's Most Wanted" after seeing an epsiode about him. "'Now we hate our brother. We didn't know he was a terrorist, but he was always the black sheep,'" Walsh remembered the brother saying.

Alarmingly, the brother was a lead that law enforcement had failed to pursue -- once again leaving it up to Walsh to fill in. "'The FBI's never contacted me,'" said Yasin's brother, according to Walsh. "They didn't even know that he had a brother here," Walsh noted.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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