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Where's the skepticism?

A WEST COAST newspaper believes the nation's media succumbed to an FBI disinformation campaign that kept the public from finding out why TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 people on board.

"Where is our media skepticism?" asked Mel Opotowsky, managing editor of the Press-Enterprise, a 164,000-circulation daily in Riverside, Calif. "The FBI's disinformation campaign is working."

Opotowsky thinks the nation's newspapers have abdicated their roles as public watchdogs, and are simply accepting as gospel whatever public officials are handing them.

"The New York Times has someone assigned to the TWA story," Opotowsky said. "The Los Angeles Times has someone assigned to it. There are some very bright reporters working on it. But the skepticism is not there."

Opotowsky said the FBI pressure on the media has distracted them from following up on his newspaper's six-month investigation of the TWA crash.

The Press-Enterprise published a front-page story on March 10 by David E. Hendrix that said that "independent computer analysis and laboratory tests provide compelling testimony that a missile brought down the Paris-bound jet."

Opotowsky said the FBI seemed more interested in his newsroom operation than in the stories it produced.

"They want to question the messengers instead of the message," he said."They have subpoenaed the telephone records of Jim Sanders [a key source on the Press-Enterprise story] and have begun a criminal investigation of him. They want to know whether Sanders was on our payroll."

Sanders, a retired police accident investigator in the Press-Enterprise area, has served as a longtime source for the newspaper.

Opotowsky also is angered by the law enforcement pressure on his reporter.

"The FBI wants to question David Hendrix about his sources," Opotowsky said. "They are going too far. There is nothing wrong with knocking down a concept. But they shouldn't be going after reporters."

Joseph Valiquette, a New York spokesperson for the FBI, denied there was any disinformation campaign being foisted on the American public.

"We would deny it," Valiquette said. The FBI spokesperson also denied the contention by the Press-Enterprise that the FBI was harassing it with subpoenas.

"They [the Press-Enterprise] haven't expressed anything to us [about harassment]," Valiquette said.

Opotowsky said the media reaction to the newspaper's investigation prompted him to write an op-ed column detailing the process his reporters used to nail down their story.

He noted in the column that a Los Angeles Times reporter questioned the Press-Enterprise's motives for pursuing the information.

"Why is your paper doing this story?" Opotowsky wrote, relating a conversation he had with a Times reporter."You didn't cover the plane crash. Why are you doing this?"

Opotowsky explained in his column that his paper's investigation lost some of its sting because the media believed that Hendrix was working with Pierre Salinger on the story. (See related story on this page.)

Salinger had asked the Press-Enterprise if it would be willing to run his article alleging that TWA 800 was shot down by an American missile.

"After reading the Salinger manuscript," Opotowsky wrote, "we decided it was not credible, had little or no support and was jumbled. We declined to publish it."

Opotowsky said in his interview with E&P that the New York Times published a story noting that Hendrix's name appeared on Salinger's story on the crash.

"We told them that Salinger was not authorized to use David's name, and they grudgingly ran a correction," Opotowsky said.

PRESS-ENTERPRISE REPORTER EXPLAINS

Hendrix says the media's chorus of criticism troubled and surprised him.

"I wake up in the middle of the night and I go over the reasons why we said what we said, again and again," he said."Then I tell myself, yes, you've done it right. The journalists on this story are much too passive."

The Press-Enterprise reporter said the newspapers are not questioning the official line of the FBI, which controls the media information flow.

"I have known Jim [Sanders] for about a dozen years," Hendrix said."But I still put him through a test. You have to be skeptical each time someone comes forward. People keep asking me about Jim. They should be asking us about our documents.

"There are 170,000 households getting our newspaper every day. And you have to say with good conscience that we had a reason to say what we did."

Hendrix, who has been with the Press-Enterprise since 1984, says he has not particularly enjoyed his 15 minutes in the media spotlight.

"It's not much fun being out there on a branch all by yourself ' he conceded in an interview.

Hendrix said he came within a couple of days of ending his investigation when he got a tip indicating the Navy lied about its training schedule on July 17, the night the Boeing 747 went down.

"I was told outright by many federal agencies that there was no military activity scheduled the night TWA crashed ' he said."But then I got some Navy documents showing that there were. There is plenty of paperwork being generated on this case.

"The media seems afraid that it will find out that the plane was hit by friendly fire 'he said."None of the press has been able to interview any of the sailors aboard the Normandy. The FBI has shut down everything."

The Navy said the Normandy, a guided missile cruiser, was in Chesapeake Bay when the plane crashed. But military officials said the ship did not fire off any training missiles that night.

"The Navy said at first that there were no submarines in the area, then they said there were three of them," Hendricks said. "Why didn't they tell us that in the first place? There was just a trail of misinformation."
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Title Annotation:journalists don't challenge official FBI stance on causes of TWA Flight 800 crash
Author:Wolper, Allan
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Apr 19, 1997
Words:954
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