A gaggle of reporters with cameras gathered outside in the cold rain Thursday morning as they waited for word on the latest in a string of Washington, D.C.-area sniper shootings. The scene: A Sunoco station on Sudley Road, a few miles outside the city, where only hours before, a Gaithersburg, Md. man had been killed with a single shot.
Manassas Police Sgt. Marc Woolverton found himself trying to stay alert after only three hours of sleep as a group of a dozen reporters began to approach him.
In the bunch: CNN, NBC, ABC, you name it. Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane would find himself encountering similar crowds of reporters during press conferences in Woodbridge later that day.
“Listen guys, I have nothing to say at this time,” Woolverton said.
Only nine years earlier, an even crazier bunch camped outside the Prince William County courthouse, awaiting the trial of Lorena Bobbitt, accused of cutting off her husband’s penis. Then, vendors sold T-shirts.
The Manassas area is no stranger to national media attention. The sniper shooting and Bobbitt trial are but two of a number of events that have thrust the area into the national spotlight.
Reporters across the country covered the Walt Disney Co.’s fight to build a theme park near the Manassas National Battlefield Park in the mid-1990s. And the trial earlier this year of Justin Wolfe, convicted of hiring a hit man to kill his drug dealer, became the subject of a story on CBS’s “48 Hours.”
The closeness of Washington, D.C., to the area helps fuel the media frenzy. With Washington bureaus nearby, news organizations don’t need to buy plane tickets or rent hotel rooms for reporters.
Among the reporters crowded near the Sunoco station Thursday were broadcast crews from Spanish language broadcaster Telemundo and the South Korean news network MBC.
“I’m usually covering news in Washington at places such as the State Department. But this is national news,” said Chang-Young Choi, a correspondent with MBC.
Hotel bookings were at usual levels at a Best Western and Red Roof Inn near the shooting scene. And yet Michael Swann, a photographer with local News Channel 4, was sure more media were coming.
“People from all over the country will soon be coming up,” he said.
Some in the city complain the attention is unwarranted. The house where John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt lived was north of the city limits. Manassas National Battlefield is two miles away.
“The little town and now the small city of Manassas has always played a role bigger than its 10 square miles. And once again in national news, it’s sharing the spotlight with Prince William County,” said Roger Snyder, who retired as the city’s community development director in July.
CNN regularly used “Manassas” as its dateline Thursday, even though the shooting was north of city limits. The use of the Manassas’ name should be expected because the city’s name is more recognizable than Prince William County’s, said City Manager Lawrence Hughes.
“It cuts both ways. It helped us during the Presidents Cup and the announcement of Eli Lilly. But then it goes the other way, such as the situation we are in now,” he said.
The Manassas area’s association with the media goes back to the earliest days of American journalism. In his book “A Bohemian Brigade,” Wall Street Journal political writer James M. Perry describes how reporters rushed to telegraph offices to dash off stories on the First Battle of Manassas in 1861.
Competition forced them to file their stories early. And most of them were wrong. An early edition of the New York Herald spoke of a “Brilliant Union Victory!” The Boston Journal told of “The Enemy Forced to Retire.”
The Manassas area would not see such national attention again until the 1990s, during the Bobbitt trial.
“It was entertainment. It was a production,” said Common-wealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, who prosecuted the case.
Ebert believes the present string of sniper shootings is more newsworthy. And the press coverage, he said, will have both good and bad aspects.
“The press can be helpful. And they can interfere. In some ways, they disrupt an investigation and make it more time consuming. But on the other hand, they provide information to the public that is helpful to an investigator many times,” he said.