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Interviews With Racist Aired on TV

July 8, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ Television networks rushed to broadcast Benjamin Smith’s venomous words as experts wondered whether that amounted to giving the racist shooting suspect the attention he had sought.

NBC’s ``Today″ show and ABC’s ``Good Morning America″ both showed interviews by the 21-year-old Smith, blamed by authorities for shootings that killed two and wounded nine. It ended Sunday with Smith’s suicide.

In the ABC interview, conducted by a student documentary filmmaker, Smith said a racial holy war was inevitable.

``If they violate our constitutional rights and say we can’t put out our literature, we have no choice but to resort to acts of violence and really to plunge this country into a terrorist war they’ve never seen before,″ Smith said.

ABC News purchased the video, for an undisclosed price, from Beverly Peterson, a student at the Kiplinger Reporting Program at Ohio State University. She had interviewed Smith as part of a documentary on racial hate groups.

``Today″ beat ABC by one day in obtaining footage of Smith through a fluke: A network intern who was a student at Indiana University had interviewed Smith for a school project. ``Today″ showed portions of the interview Tuesday and Wednesday.

On NBC, Smith described Jews as ``a parasitic race″ and suggested that blacks be deported to Africa.

NBC considered the impact of Smith’s words before broadcasting them, said Mike Bass, senior broadcast producer on ``Today.″ He said the story’s biggest question was why Smith did it, something the white supremacist’s words helped explain.

A spokeswoman at ABC, Su-Lin Nichols, echoed that: ``We felt that airing the interview was helping to put the event in context.″

Two experts in criminology believed the videos helped explain hate groups. Jack Levin, a sociology professor at Northeastern University, compared this video broadcast to Geraldo Rivera’s interview of skinheads a decade ago that prompted anti-hate crime legislation.

But there is also a danger in showing too much, said Brian Levin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, San Bernardino.

``The people in this movement crave fame,″ Brian Levin said. ``What we might be doing is subtly encouraging people who are vulnerable to go out and posthumously get their 15 minutes of fame.″

After broadcasting Smith’s words on ``Today,″ host Matt Lauer acknowledged that supremacist groups received more publicity with such airings than by distributing pamphlets. But Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the expert Lauer interviewed, lauded ``Today″ for public service.

Both ABC and CBS expressed interest in Peterson’s video, which was shopped to the networks by the head of her journalism program at Ohio State.

Last May, the network came under attack for not disclosing that it paid for the video supplied by a friend of one Columbine High School gunman. This Wednesday, on ``Good Morning America,″ Diane Sawyer indicated that ABC News bought material and she would replay a portion of the interview on her program.

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