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The story behind the tape

April 20, 2000

By Michael Patrick Carney

JEFFERSON CITY - Some Republicans in the Missouri General Assembly are sharpening their knives and seeking out copies of a videotape that shows Gov. Mel Carnahan and his bodyguard in a physical encounter with a journalist.

A week ago Wednesday, KTVI-TV cameraman Larry Washington was pushed away from Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan by Sgt. Elbert Marshall, a state Highway Patrol bodyguard. He was pushed and held against a hangar wall for five minutes, prohibited from taping until Carnahan boarded the state-owned Citation jet.

The encounter was captured on videotape.

Rep. David Levin, R-St. Louis County, said he was concerned about a possible cover-up because the state Highway Patrol superintendent closed his investigation without analyzing the tape.

"The Highway Patrolman went way beyond his legal authority," said Levin, pamphlets advocating the re-election of Sen. John Ashcroft on his desk. Carnahan is challenging Ashcroft in what observers expect will be one of the most expensive and bitter races in state history.

"I imagine we're going to see that video more than once as we get closer to the election," Levin said.

As the event continues to reverberate in state politics here's an examination of the roles of each player.

THE GOVERNOR

"What right does the governor have to use physical force to prevent a citizen from asking a question?" asked Stuart H. Loory, an MU journalism professor with a storied career, including coverage of American presidents and Soviet premiers.

"It's banana republic stuff," Loory said.

Kevin Killeen, a reporter for KMOX in St. Louis, said the governor refused to answer a question last year and covered the microphone with his hand. It was before a press conference to which Carnahan was running late. The governor later answered Killeen's questions.

A spokesman for Carnahan said he had no knowledge of that incident.

"He can handle himself, and is usually gracious, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the future," said Killeen.

Joe Wershba, who spent 34 years as a producer with CBS News, said the only encounter with a public official that he considered threatening was in Gastonia, North Carolina, during 1954 for the program 'See It Now' with Edward R. Murrow.

Wershba had gone South to get local reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation case, but it became obvious that some locals were upset by his interviews with both whites and blacks.

"I got a knock on the door at 11 p.m. It was the mayor of the town. He said you are not welcome here," Wershba said.

Wershba gathered his crew and left Gastonia.

THE JOURNALISTS

The KTVI crew was working on a story that will be aired in May, a key month used by advertisers to determine the size of a broadcaster's audience.

Carnahan and police officials alleged Washington and Elliott Davis, a KTVI reporter, ambushed the governor within a restricted area.

"Elbert thought the individuals were not giving the governor access to the plane," said Capt. Chris Ricks, a spokesman for the Patrol.

The journalists contacted for this article--reporters and photojournalists alike--said the TV crew seems to have acted according to professional norms.

For example, it is common practice to question public officials in public places, many said.

"I think I certainly would have approached the governor to ask him a question. He's a great source," said Loory,

"Common sense would dictate the governor expects they're going to ask him something," said Tyrone Edwards, a freelance videographer who has covered stories on all seven continents. He spent 15 years with CNN.

The fact that the tape shows Carnahan exchanging pleasantries with the TV crew discounts the ambush scenario, Edwards said.

Edwards said he has never had such an encounter with a high official like Carnahan. Other individuals have tried to cover the lens or move him, however.

This is a sensitive area for those behind the camera.

"The camera is a part of the person," Edwards said. "Your eye is right up on the viewfinder." When someone strikes the camera, "It goes right into your head," he said.

Larry Washington, the KTVI cameraman, has not returned to work since the incident. His lawyer said he is suffering from back pain.

The area may be restricted on paper, but it is only partly fenced-in and no visible signs warn that access is limited.

"It is, but it isn't," said Tom Winters, a mechanic at an adjacent hangar operated by the state Conservation Department

He pointed out there is only one sign. Located on the backside of the entrance, it asks visitors to "please close the gate after 5 p.m."

THE BODYGUARD

Marshall is well trained.

In fact, experts say other states should use the training provided to the governor's bodyguards as a model. Troopers must have a minimum of three years patrol experience before they are accepted to the governor's nine-person security detail. They then undergo special training from both the state academy and the U.S. Secret Service.

So why did the airport encounter, which Carnahan described as an "unfortunate accident," occur?

It's unclear, said two authorities on the subject of executive protection, working from a description of the incident provided by MDN.

"It appears that the security agent for the governor acted excessively in removing the cameraman the way he did," said Professor Robert McCrie, chairman of the department of law, police science and criminal justice at one of America's preeminent schools of criminal justice, New York City's John Jay College.

Neither Marshall nor a second bodyguard on the scene, Corporal Ed Aylward, have been disciplined. Washington's attorney has contacted the Patrol for information about filing a complaint.

The Patrol, citing the possibility of a complaint, has refused to release Marshall's report.

Those trained in executive protection plan for encounters with reporters, said McCrie.

A colleague, Robert J. Castelli, said there could be a few possible explanations.

"The governor's action. . .was key to a member of the detail getting between the camera and the governor," Castelli said.

He said there have been instances where a single-barrel one-shot weapon had been secreted behind a fake camera lens.

"It is better to err on the side of caution," said Castelli, a 21-year veteran of the New York State Police. "Stick it in their face or eye and bye-bye."

That wasn't on the bodyguard's mind, said Ricks, the Patrol spokesman.

"He was just doing what he thought was best," Ricks said of the bodyguard.