Media Matters

If It Bleeds, It Leads

A feeding frenzy afternoon on Capitol Hill.

By 11.3.03

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WASHINGTON -- Last Thursday at approximately 1 p.m. in the Cannon House Office Building, which contains one-third of all U.S. congressmen, two female employees entered the building, back from their lunch break. They sauntered in, sent their bags along the security belt, picked them up, and returned to work. A guard noticed what looked like a gun in the x-ray but it took a minute to register, and the women were already gone. He sounded the alarm, and then things...got a little weird.

By 2 p.m. Fox and CNN, among many others, were reporting a gunman in the Cannon building with the possibility of hostages. Panic spread though the wires at top speed. The suspect was described as a "white man, about 5-foot-3, about 140 pounds, with brown hair, possibly 20-23 years old."

That was the first I heard of it. A friend who works for a cable network called to say I should turn on the television or check the Drudge Report. It was a slow day at the office so my editor said I should go cover it. He handed me a stack of his business cards and told me to toss them at anybody who gave me a hard time.

In transit, a new update surfaced to offer a different twist to this soon to be made for television movie. This time there were two suspects, one of whom was a woman. Authorities were now looking for a white man, 5'3'', 140 pounds, with a black suit, white shirt and a black and gray backpack. The Bonnie to his Clyde was 5'5'', wearing khaki pants, a pink shirt, and had sunglasses parked on top of her head. Officers should watch out for her "long brown hair extending past her shoulders."

The capital was on bright orange alert. A gunman -- make that two gunmen with fashion sense -- loose in a federal building? SWAT teams were called in, as well as the FBI. Police surrounded the building and locked it down while they did a room to room search, trapping workers in with the trigger-happy duo. The tunnel that connects the Cannon and Russell buildings was also sealed.

Those inside the Cannon building were understandably scared for their lives. They made panicked calls to the local media and added entries to online sites such as MetaFilter.com. This further fueled speculation about the gun-toters: Rumor had it, their bags were placed briefly on the security belt and then spirited away before the officer had a chance to examine them, and God only knew what else was in them, but that didn't stop people from speculating.

By 3:30 the area in front of the Cannon building was lousy with reporters. Major news stations parked their vans and put up the antennas. Reporters, camera men, tech crews, still photographers, radio personalities, head anchor men and their assistants, all aggressively jostled for an exclusive, some scrap of information that would give their organization a leg up on the competition. But boy were they ever in for a disappointment.

Capitol Hill Police Chief Terrance Gainer stepped forward to deliver a statement to the eager press. To the dismay of miniseries writers everywhere, he announced that the gunmen had been caught with no bloodletting. In fact, he said, there wasn't even a gun, or not a real gun anyway. One of the two employees had a toy six-shooter in her bag to be used as part of a Halloween costume, and, shucks, no charges would be filed. Gainer announced that in the future, the security belt will be slowed down to allow screeners a really good look at bags in case someone decides to bring a toy gun to next year's Halloween festivities.

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