The Branch Davidians and the Waco Media, 1993-2003

Loyola University New Orleans (A paper presented at CESNUR 2004 international conference, Baylor University, Waco (Texas), June 18-20, 2004)

Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

Studies of new religious movements and violence have demonstrated that violence involving religious groups is interactive in nature; the quality of the interactions of a variety of forces in the outside society with believers is crucial for determining the potential for volatility (J. R. Hall, 1995; Wessinger, 2000; Richardson, 2001; Bromley and Melton, 2002). These forces and actors in mainstream society include the media, law enforcement agents, and former members. All of these types of actors contributed to the conflict in 1993 known by the shorthand term “Waco,” which occurred at the Branch Davidians’ residence called Mount Carmel. Media personnel were major players in the conflict between federal law enforcement agents and the Branch Davidians, from the ATF assault on February 28, which resulted in ten deaths, to the FBI tank and gas assault on April 19 that culminated in the fire, which caused 74 deaths. The media shaped the public perceptions of the Branch Davidians underlying the conflict. The media were the locus of the struggle to define the events at Mount Carmel and that struggle continues.[1]

Generally from 1993 to 2003 reporting in the print media about the events at Mount Carmel evolved from “cult” stories to stories about excessive actions by federal law enforcement agents against an unconventional religious group. In 2003 a greater effort was made in the print media to depict the diverse viewpoints of the actors in the drama, however, the storyline remained highly contested. Federal agents and their anticult advisors still had vested interests in maintaining the “cult” filter through which the events at Mount Carmel were viewed.[2]

In this paper I will show that Waco media representatives played key roles in precipitating the conflict at Mount Carmel. I will indicate the main contours of Waco reporting on this case by comparing the Waco Tribune Herald’s 1993 “Sinful Messiah” series with its 2003 “Flashpoint in History” series. The evolution in the Tribune-Herald’s reporting on the Branch Davidians suggests how the print media reporting on this case has changed while remaining the same.

The Media and the Conflict at Mount Carmel

Various media and media representatives were intimately involved in the conflict at Mount Carmel from the beginning to the fiery end. Media representatives contributed to the debacle, and all parties involved used or attempted to use media.

After the Waco Tribune-Herald had been contacted by former Branch Davidians, reporters Mark England and Darlene McCormick began research in June 1992 on stories that became known as the “Sinful Messiah” series. The Branch Davidians were a group that had split off from the Seventh-day Adventist Church that had existed in the Waco area since 1935. David Koresh (33) was the fourth in a line of Branch Davidian prophets. The research of England and McCormick focused on allegations of weapons stockpiling and that Koresh was having sex with underage girls. The series was ready for publication in February 1993, about the time that agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) were preparing to carry out a “dynamic entry” to serve an arrest warrant on Koresh and to search for illegal weapons. The ATF commanders in charge of “Operation Trojan Horse,” Phillip Chojnacki and Charles Sarabyn, fearing that the series would create a more defensive posture at Mount Carmel, negotiated with Waco Tribune-Herald editors and the paper’s publisher and a Cox Enterprises vice-president seeking to postpone publication until after the raid. Thus, began a dance between the newspaper and the ATF, with the Tribune-Herald seeking to publish the series before the raid and the ATF seeking to launch the raid before the series was published. The dance resulted in media representatives being directly involved with the disastrous events of February 28, 1993.

The Waco Tribune-Herald began the series on Saturday, February 27, thinking that the ATF raid would be carried out on Monday, March 1. The first story alleged that David Koresh had sex with underage girls and administered severe spankings to small children as well as accumulated and utilized a variety of weapons. David Koresh was painted as having all the worst characteristics of a “cult leader.” When the first story appeared, ATF agents decided to launch the raid on Sunday, February 28. Tommy Witherspoon, a Waco Tribune-Herald reporter, and Dan Mulloney, a cameraman for KWTX-TV in Waco, separately got tips, which they confirmed with each other, that the raid would occur on the morning of February 28 (Maxwell and Smith, 1993).[3]

There were two KWTX-TV vehicles and three vehicles containing Waco Tribune-Herald reporters on the roads just outside Mount Carmel early on February 28. A KWTX-TV cameraman was lost when he was approached by David Jones, a Branch Davidian whose car was marked “U.S. Mail,” who asked if there was going to be a raid. The cameraman’s shirt had a KWTX-TV logo on it, and police traffic could be heard on his scanner. Jones returned to Mount Carmel with the information that ATF agents would be arriving soon. He had gone out early that morning to buy a copy of the Waco Tribune-Herald in order to read the second installment of the “Sinful Messiah” series (Maxwell and Smith, 1993).

Early on the morning of February 28, an ATF undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, brought a copy of the Sunday Waco Tribune Herald to Mount Carmel under the pretext of wanting to discuss it with Koresh. Rodriguez was really checking to see if the series had provoked defensive preparations on the part of the Branch Davidians. While Rodriguez was receiving a Bible study from David Koresh, Koresh was called out. When Koresh returned he was shaking and stated that he knew the ATF and National Guard were coming to get him. Rodriguez hurriedly left Mount Carmel to return to the undercover house across the road and called his commanders begging them to call off the raid because the element of surprise had been lost. The raid should have been called off according to the plan, but instead Sarabyn told the agents to hurry up, “They know we are coming. It’s show time” (Maxwell and Smith, 1993, §§54, 68).

Immediately before the 76 ATF agents arrived in cattle trailers to carry out the raid, a car carrying Waco Tribune-Herald personnel, including Tommy Witherspoon, parked on the road directly in front of Mount Carmel to take photographs, even though they had just been told to leave by an ATF agent in a nearby house (Maxwell and Smith, 1993).

The raid was carried out beginning at 9:45 a.m. While National Guard helicopters flew over the residence, ATF agents were transported to the front door in cattle trailers with Mulloney and John McLemore of KWTX-TV following in their vehicle. A shoot-out began at the front door of the residence and on the second floor where ATF agents attempted to enter the building through a window. Mulloney and McLemore came under fire with the ATF agents. The Waco Tribune-Herald personnel took cover in a ditch on the road when shots were directed at them (Maxwell and Smith, 1993). At the conclusion of the shootout, four ATF agents were dead and twenty agents were wounded, five Branch Davidians were dead and four Branch Davidians were wounded, including David Koresh. Branch Davidian Michael Schroeder (29) was shot and killed by ATF agents later that day as he attempted to return to Mount Carmel on foot.

On the following day agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrived to take over what became a 51-day siege, and they took control of the media’s access to information about the case. Mount Carmel was surrounded by tanks as negotiations were carried out by telephone. Mount Carmel’s telephone connections to the rest of society were blocked by the FBI, because on February 28 Koresh gave interviews to CNN, KRLD radio in Dallas, and the Dallas Morning News. From that point on the FBI largely controlled information about events at Mount Carmel. Even the relevant court documents were sealed during this time (Hancock, 2004). Reporters were pushed back three miles to a site that was dubbed “Satellite City.” The “Sinful Messiah” series became the first reference for reporters converging on Waco, and shaped how the Branch Davidians were depicted in the national media. FBI news briefings became occasions for agents to deride Koresh and the Branch Davidians’ beliefs in attempts to manipulate them (Lowe, 1993).

After the tragic fire on April 19, 1993, which was the result of an FBI CS-gas and tank assault, and in which 74 Branch Davidians died, including 23 children, the ATF agents and the families of the four dead agents filed suit against the Waco Tribune-Herald and KWTX-TV alleging that their personnel tipped off the Branch Davidians about the raid. Without admitting liability, an out-of-court settlement was reached in 1996 for an undisclosed sum (Hancock, 1996).

“Sinful Messiah” Series in the Waco Tribune Herald

The Waco Tribune-Herald’s “Sinful Messiah” series (England and McCormick 1993) began its first installment on Saturday, February 27, 1993, and the second article was published on February 28, the day of the ATF raid. After the disaster on February 28, the Waco Tribune-Herald published parts 3-7 of the series on Monday, March 1, on the front page. The series was an initial source of information for the FBI agents and reporters arriving in Waco. Newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune either reprinted all or parts of the series, or drew heavily on it for their own stories (Tabor and Gallagher, 1995, 105, 118-19).

The Branch Davidians saw David Koresh as the messiah (christ, or anointed one) figure described in Psalm 40:12 as being full of iniquities, or sinful. They understood this messiah to be the Son of God described in Psalm 45 as marrying virgins and having children by them who “become princes in all the earth.” Koresh identified himself as being this Christ and as being the rider on the white horse in the First Seal of Revelation (chapt. 6), who goes forth to conquer evil in the final apocalyptic events (Tabor and Gallagher 1995, 57). David Koresh as the Christ was sinful, not perfect, in order to be an effective savior of sinful humanity (Matteson 2003). The “Sinful Messiah” series took the Branch Davidians’ theological concept of the sinful messiah as the agent of salvation and made it into a condemnation of a “cult leader.”

According to Tabor and Gallagher, the “Sinful Messiah” series, by perpetuating the “cult” stereotype, “promoted the agenda of the anticult activists while at the same time discounting or denying outright the seriousness and even religiousness of the Branch Davidians (117). The “Sinful Messiah” series “[b]y providing the public with a convenient interpretive shorthand, the characterization of the community as a ‘cult,’ unfortunately made it all too easy and attractive to deny Koresh and the other [Branch Davidians] their full and complex humanity” (118).

A dramatic story was behind the “Sinful Messiah” series written by Mark England and Darlene McCormick. The Waco Tribune-Herald and its owner, Cox Enterprises, had spent tens of thousands of dollars and dedicated months of investigative effort into researching and writing the series, possibly in the hope of winning a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper. According to Wendell Rawls, this was why the Waco Tribune-Herald did not want the series to be preempted by the ATF raid. ATF agent Phillip Chojnacki met with publishers and editors at the Waco Tribune-Herald office on February 24, but they declined to promise to delay the story, citing concerns about the children at Mount Carmel and the public’s right to know (Maxwell and Smith, 1993, §§121-22, 153, 186). On February 25, Bob Lott, the Tribune-Herald’s managing editor, wrote the editorial that would accompany the first installment demanding that something be done quickly by law enforcement agents about Koresh’s activities (Rawls, 1993). Lott’s editorial along with part one of the series was published on Saturday, February 27. According to Rawls:

One suspects that what [Lott] really wanted was three days, three days of articles in the series before [the] anticipated ATF raid on Monday morning, March 1. Three days of articles like the above-the-fold, top-right, Page 1, copyrighted article with the headline that read: “THE LAW WATCHES, BUT HAS DONE LITTLE.”

One also suspects that when the raid came the newspaper would try to take credit for it. That seems to be one of the things that Pulitzer Prize juries appreciate: results (14).

The “Sinful Messiah” series painted a grim picture of life at Mount Carmel, alleging abusive spankings of children to the point of drawing blood, and that Koresh boasted of his sexual exploits with young girls, the most disturbing allegation being that he forced himself on a 12-year-old girl when she resisted (England and McCormick, 1993, Part One, Part Four). It should be noted that Texas social workers had investigated the Branch Davidians for child abuse and closed the case for lack of evidence. Child abuse does not come under the jurisdiction of federal authorities.

The series relied on allegations made by former Branch Davidians who were concerned about what was going on at Mount Carmel, interspersed with a few extremely unflattering quotations from David Koresh. Marc Breault (29 in 1993) had left Mount Carmel over concerns about Koresh’s sexual relations with girls and his 1989 teaching that all the women were Koresh’s wives. After the fire Breault published Inside the Cult (Breault and King, 1993) depicting himself as a “cult buster.” Breault stated that “my primary reason for trying to help is the children” (England and McCormick, 1993, Part One). Robyn Bunds (23 in 1993) was another important source for the series. She had a child by Koresh, and had successfully secured custody of the boy after Koresh made efforts to keep him (Part Six).

Part One of the series asked, “Why anyone would join such a group?” The former members answered that they had been subjected to “traditional mind-control techniques to entrap listeners,” and that Koresh’s Bible study sessions were “spellbinding.” The myth of the mesmerizing charismatic leader casting his spell on intelligent people powerless to resist was perpetuated in Part Two, which referred to Koresh’s influence as “eerie.” The stories referred to Koresh as a “cult leader” and the Branch Davidians as “cult members.” Part One concluded with a list of legal categories relating to sexual assault of children, and was accompanied by an impassioned editorial by Bob Lott demanding that something be done to stop Koresh.

Part Three was published after the ATF assault with a note by Bob Lott discussing the timing of the publication of the series and whether it contributed to the deaths the previous day. He reported that federal agents had asked the Tribune-Herald to hold off publishing the series, but that because of concerns for the children they decided it was “time to let the public know of this menace in our community.” Lott concluded: “I don’t agree with the tendency of some to point to our reporting as having affected Sunday’s tragedy. We share the anguish over what happened. Everyone involved or who saw it is devastated.”

In addition to testimony from a variety of former members, Part Four of the series introduced the voices of “cult experts” from the anticult movement asserting that David Koresh “controls the minds” of his followers in a “destructive cult.” Priscilla Coates of the Cult Awareness Network and Rick Ross were cited, who depicted Koresh as practicing mind control leaving the Branch Davidians “passive and obedient.”

Jeanine Bunds, the mother of Robyn Bunds, gave an assessment of life at Mount Carmel untainted by the anticult movement in Part Six:

I’m over 21, intelligent. I could have walked away at any time. I chose to stay. He doesn’t keep you. You can leave. What you have to understand, though, is he keeps you by emotion. When you’re down there, it’s all so exciting. You don’t know what he’ll come up with next. I guess everyone is looking for Utopia, Shangri la. You don’t want any problems. It wasn’t all bad times, you know. The people in this are great. They’ll give you the shirt off their back. They’re nice, like everyone else in the world. Except they believe this.

But the overriding presentation of the Branch Davidians in the series was that they were a dangerous cult controlled by a manipulative cult leader exercising mind control. Self-styled “cult experts” and over twenty disaffected former members (Part One) were the main sources for the series. David Koresh was interviewed several times by telephone (Maxwell and Smith, 1993, §§182, 191), and was cited as saying, “If the Bible is true, I’m Christ. But so what? What’s so great about being Christ? A man nailed to the cross. A man acquainted with grief,” and also, “If the Bible is true, I’m Christ. If the Bible is true. But all I want out of this is for people to be honest this time” (Part Seven). But the perspective of Koresh was only lightly represented, and often in an unflattering light.

On February 27, after Part One of the series appeared, Branch Davidian Steve Schneider (41) called the Waco Tribune-Herald and invited Mark England and city editor Brian Blansette to Mount Carmel so that Koresh could explain the Seven Seals of the book of Revelation to them. Clearly Koresh felt that a better knowledge of the biblical prophecies was necessary for them to understand his activities. Knowing that the raid was scheduled for February 28, they decided not to go (Maxwell and Smith, 1993, §187).

The “Sinful Messiah” series would have been enhanced if the voices of faithful Branch Davidians and non-disaffected former members had been represented. The religious beliefs of the Branch Davidians were presented as bizarre and therefore the perspectives of the Branch Davidians were seen as unworthy of serious consideration.

According to Tabor and Gallagher, “[t]he widespread failure to take the religious convictions of Koresh and the other Davidians seriously, signaled by the facile adoption of the term ‘cult,’ contributed directly to their deaths” (1995, 118).

“Flashpoint in History: 10 Years after Mount Carmel”

In 2003 the Waco Tribune Herald ran a second series on the tragedy in each Sunday issue from February 23 through April 13, culminating in a story on April 19, the tenth anniversary of the fire. The “Flashpoint in History” (2003) series made a concerted effort to include a variety of perspectives on the case. It contributed to humanizing the key players by including short vignettes of individuals, ranging from law enforcement agents and government officials to the surviving Branch Davidians. The series attempted to convey the complexities of the story and to humanize the actors in the drama. However, it made egregious errors in continuing to give a voice to spurious self-styled experts such as Rick Ross and for continuing to depict the Branch Davidians as crazy “cultists.” The perspectives expressed in this series indicated that different parties were continuing to contest the framing of the story. I am part of that contest, so I will attempt to report my role as self-reflexively as possible while stating my views. Law enforcement agents and their former advisors still have a stake in blaming Koresh and the Branch Davidians. The surviving Branch Davidians have an obvious stake in humanizing themselves and their loved ones in the media, and in protesting the government’s actions against them.

The February 23, 2003, overview by Jason Embry stated that the “Branch Davidian saga was fraught with missteps on both sides.” The article was accompanied by a statement by Carlos Sanchez, Waco Tribune Herald editor, saying that the series intended to examine the legacy of the case for the city and the nation: “The problem, we quickly discovered, is that the events…left not only our community but our country with several different legacies, all complex and many still unclear.” Sanchez wrote: “The siege at Mount Carmel…has left lingering questions in Waco and American culture about the role of law enforcement-local and federal-as well as religion, government intervention and the media.” Sanchez suggested that “the debate itself may be Mount Carmel’s enduring legacy.”

There was also a statement in the February 23 issue from Bob Lott, the Tribune-Herald managing editor in 1993. He wrote that in 1993, “[t]oo many died, and too needlessly: spellbound followers of a religious fanatic, recklessly led government men and the children, most horribly the innocent children.” Lott praised the investigative reporting of Mark England and Darlene McCormick in the “Sinful Messiah” series and protested “the false accusations that [the] paper had contributed to the tragedy.”

Terri Jo Ryan (Part 2) focused on the history and beliefs of the Branch Davidians and the different perspectives on the story. Surviving Branch Davidians were interviewed as well as several scholars including Stuart A. Wright and myself. Branch Davidian Clive Doyle addressed the issue of David Koresh’s sexual relations with girls by giving the Branch Davidians’ theological understanding: “we have had to wrestle with that, but we got to where we accepted it as God’s instruction. If people couldn’t accept it, they walked away. David believed God instructed him to produce children, that they were to be special children, that they would be there for judgment.” I was quoted as saying that I saw the Branch Davidian tragedy as being a story about what happened to an unconventional religious group and about the abuses that arise out of the militarization of law enforcement.

I regard it as particularly unfortunate that the Tribune-Herald went back again to Rick Ross as a “cult expert.” Ross’ quoted remarks in Part 2 about the surviving Branch Davidians were aimed at discrediting them. These were personal and insensitive attacks; I regard them as being extremely inappropriate in a news article. For instance, Ross was quoted as saying about Sheila Martin, who lost in the fire her husband, Douglas Wayne Martin (42), and four of her children, Wayne Joseph (20), Anita (18), Sheila (15), and Lisa (13):

And consider Sheila Martin. She lost a husband, the love of her life, the father of her children. She lost half her children and all of her friends in this horrible, horrible tragedy. All she sacrificed was for nothing and who did she give this up for? A pedophile, a criminal of the worst sort, a man who raped a 10-year-old.

Ross discounted the significance of David Koresh’s teachings for the Branch Davidians, calling them “theology-on-the-fly.”

Generally this article by Terri Jo Ryan demonstrated a clumsy inability to negotiate the different perspectives of the Branch Davidians, scholars, and anticultists. I note that I never spoke directly with Terri Jo Ryan, but to her editor, whom I thought would write the story.

Tommy Witherspoon’s article (Part 3) on the Branch Davidian prisoners was informative. Of the Branch Davidians convicted, Ruth Riddle had completed her sentence and was released. The seven men remaining in prison would be out in three to four years, but they would still be required to pay financial remuneration.

Mike Anderson’s story (Part 4) focused on federal and state agents and agencies. ATF and FBI agents articulated their view that blame rested solely on Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Retired ATF agent Bill Buford (58) asserted that on February 28, 1993, Branch Davidians were firing machine guns as the agents got out of the cattle trailers. In response to the Treasury Department’s report that in 1993 ATF officials lied to investigators and reporters, the ATF developed a new training program for agents stressing the importance of honesty and how to work with the media.

This story reported that after 1993 the ATF created four specially trained tactical teams for high-risk operations, and agents were more carefully trained in intelligence gathering and decision-making. Since 1993 the ATF shifted from using “penetration-type” searches to plans where agents surround a site and call for the subjects to surrender. Director Bradley A. Buckles noted that the ATF had learned that tactics that work with criminals will probably not work when applied to religious believers.

This story included an interview with Byron Sage (55), styled as the FBI’s lead negotiator during the siege in 1993. Sage reported that after 1993 the FBI formed the Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) to put the negotiators and tactical officers under a coordinated command. Sage said that all CIRG members took a two-week negotiation class every year.

Bob Boyd of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services was interviewed in Part 4 on the child abuse allegations. Boyd explained that the department did nothing in 1993 in response to child abuse allegations, because the children they interviewed at Mount Carmel reported no abuse.

The FBI assault and the fire were addressed in this story. Clive Doyle reported that he knew of no plan for suicide and that he believed the Branch Davidians were coming out after Koresh completed his little book on the Seven Seals. Byron Sage asserted, however, that there was no evidence that Koresh was working on the book and that this claim was a delaying tactic. Sage asserted that the FBI agents had no control over the outcome at Mount Carmel:

The FBI never had any control over how this was going to end. From day one, that was up to Koresh. I think the only control law enforcement had over this was where and when it was going to end. But ultimately the ending was up to Koresh. He never relinquished that control right up to the fire that ultimately took the lives of those children.

Carl Hoover’s article (Part 5) surveyed the products of popular culture alluding to the Branch Davidian tragedy.

Mike Copeland’s article entitled “Escaping the Stigma” (Part 6) traced the concern of the citizens of Waco that the name of their city had become synonymous with the tragedy. The “Flashpoint in History” articles repeatedly pointed out that Mount Carmel was located ten miles east of Waco near the small community of Elk, Texas.

Throughout the series, despite reporters’ efforts to be neutral and include all views, the Branch Davidians were discounted repeatedly as being “Apocalypse-obsessed” (Part 2, 4, 9, Mike McNulty bio) or “Apocalypse-fixated” (Part 6) strange appellations in the middle of the Bible Belt-or as being “apocalyptic cult members” (Part 8). Copeland’s article amazingly characterized the events at Mount Carmel as being a “combustible episode.” His prose distanced the Branch Davidians in terms of proximity and worldview:

Self-styled Davidian prophet David Koresh, 33, and his Apocalypse-fixated followers did not reside in Waco. They lived in a communal arrangement near the small city of Elk, 10 miles east of the city.

Copeland’s article touched on the difference in the ways Americans viewed the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing (carried out by Timothy McVeigh and perhaps others in retaliation for the Branch Davidian deaths) and the victims of September 11, 2001. Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys said: “I’m not sure Americans knew how to respond emotionally to the Davidians.”

Copeland’s articled concluded by putting the blame on David Koresh:

Even critics of law enforcement’s handling of the siege note that Koresh was anything but an innocent victim. Much of what happened to the Davidians is rooted in Koresh’s obsession with weaponry, his sexual relations with underage girls and his earlier shootout with a rival prophet at Mount Carmel.

J. B. Smith (Part 7) focused on the children of Mount Carmel. Kevin Jones (21) remembered hiding with his brother under a blanket while the bullets flew through the walls during the ATF assault. He remembered hearing his grandfather, Perry Jones, screaming when he was shot and begging to be put out of his pain. Kevin Jones wondered why the ATF did not arrest Koresh on one of his trips into Waco.

Daniel Martin (16) described Mount Carmel as an environment apart from video games and fast food and as having no indoor plumbing. He remembered that children were spanked, but did not recall ever feeling fearful: “I was always watching. I was always deep in thought. But I had fun. I was always happy.”

Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist who worked with the children who came out during the siege, said that he was not surprised to hear that the young people had fond memories of Mount Carmel. He stated that he believed that the environment possessed a twisted worldview without being physically abusive. Perry reported that when Attorney General Janet Reno initially justified the FBI assault by alleging child abuse, he reacted, “What is she talking about?” Reno had to retract that allegation. Perry stated in the “Flashpoint” article that there was no evidence of child abuse during the siege; nothing was going on inside Mount Carmel to justify the tank and CS-gas assault.[4]

A second article by Tommy Witherspoon (Part 8) focused on the civil liberty issues. The adult Branch Davidians’ attorney in the wrongful death civil case, former attorney general Ramsey Clark, was quoted as saying:

I think it ought to be remembered always, painful as it is, because to me it represents the greatest tragedy in the history of the U.S. domestic law enforcement, the greatest loss of life and the greatest failure of law enforcement to sensitively address a very difficult situation with the highest priority of securing life.

The article pointed out that in 1993 while federal agents were blasting high-decibel sounds at the Branch Davidians and shining bright spotlights at them all night long, Persian Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh was nearby watching and became the anti-government activist who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people. Sociologist Stuart A. Wright was quoted as saying: “It [Mount Carmel] was unprecedented in scope and consequence. I mean 86 people died in the whole thing. It’s just unprecedented for law enforcement to be involved and for that many people to have been killed.” Wright continued:

I’ve noted an amazing shift in public reaction since 1993. By 1999, when we learned of the pyrotechnic devices, polls showed 50 percent of Americans believed the FBI had screwed up or had a major hand in the tragic outcome. Compare that with polls right after (the incident) where 93 percent blamed the Davidians.

Witherspoon’s article stated that many law enforcement officials “remain convinced that apocalyptic cult members set the fire themselves as part of a grand suicide pact.” A paragraph in Witherspoon’s article seemed to suggest that the Branch Davidians got what they deserved because of the sexual practices, as if these justified the aggressive actions that resulted in the deaths of the children:

While Doyle and other followers say the Branch Davidians were peaceful people who merely wanted to study the Bible and mind their own business, DNA evidence revealed that at least a dozen of the 21 children who died in the fire were fathered by Koresh. Some of their mothers were underage girls (Part 8).

“Prophesying about Waco” by Brian Gaar dated April 19, 2003 (Part 9) again characterized the Branch Davidians as “Apocalypse-obsessed followers” who “perished in a mysterious inferno.” The article discussed how college students in 2003, even those nearby at Baylor University in Waco and at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, did not know what happened at Mount Carmel in 1993. Much of the article was focused on citizens, who were concerned that “Waco” had become “a household word, initially conjuring up gun-toting, Bible-quoting religious crazies.” Bob Sheehy, who was mayor of Waco in 1993, expressed relief that the general public was starting to forget the association of the tragedy with the city. While Waco was planning a memorial to the 114 people who died in a tornado in 1947, Sheehy expressed opposition to any memorial at Mount Carmel. Two Baylor scholars expressed contrary views. Dr. Derek Davis said he would like to see a memorial at Mount Carmel, or a larger museum to present information about what happened: “[I]t is something we want to remember as an important event concerning American religious freedom.” Baylor sociologist Larry Lyon noted:

When Waco was mentioned eight years ago, 10 years ago, it meant crazy people. It used to be a place where people had strange interpretations of the Bible. Now it no longer means religious fanaticism. Now it’s a place where the government overreached. It’s a place where there are lessons to be learned.

The “Flashpoint in History” series made a genuine attempt to give a balanced treatment by including a variety of perspectives on the Branch Davidian tragedy. The diverse voices in the series indicated that the framing of the story was still highly contested, between Branch Davidians and law enforcement agents, between scholars and anticultists, between citizens of Waco who wanted the world to forget the incident, Branch Davidians like Clive Doyle, who in Part 9 asserted “We’re part of this community,” and concerned Waco citizens and outsiders who believed a more elaborate memorial should be put on the site. In my opinion, it was extremely unprofessional to include the voice of a deprogrammer (a spurious profession) with a criminal record and no training in the study of religion as an “expert” on the Branch Davidians.[5] The personal attacks that Rick Ross was permitted to launch in the pages of the Waco Tribune-Herald on surviving Branch Davidians were in extremely poor taste and did not reflect good reporting. The series’ constant characterization of the Branch Davidians as “Apocalypse-obsessed” continued the discounting of the significance of their religious beliefs and humanity. The series came close to suggesting (Part 8) that because of the sexual practices the Branch Davidians got a deserving outcome in the federal actions that resulted in the deaths of the innocents inside Mount Carmel. For the most part, Waco citizens expressed the wish that the rest of the world realized that the Branch Davidians lived ten miles outside the city.

Branch Davidians and the Media in 2003

The surviving Branch Davidians who remained close to Mount Carmel, Catherine Matteson, Clive Doyle, Sheila Martin, and Bonnie Haldeman (who visited regularly), continued to talk to the media through the years, realizing that they had a stake in humanizing themselves and their deceased loved ones in the public eye. However, by 2003 they felt they had been betrayed often by reporters, who came around pretending to be friendly and then left to depict them in a negative light.

Yet the surviving Branch Davidians continued to give interviews. For instance, Bonnie Haldeman (2003), David Koresh’s mother, believed that media representatives were mainly looking for the sensational stories. She believed that some reporters were looking for the truth, but unless there was a sensational hook they were not going to pursue the story. She was aware that reporters were limited in what they could write; they were constrained by the perspectives of their editors. Haldeman chose not to speak much to reporters on the subject of Koresh’s wives and children, admitting that she did not understand it fully, but saying that Koresh’s reasons were biblically based. Instead Haldeman chose to humanize them by regularly expressing her love for her deceased grandchildren, their mothers, and for her son, as well as for her friends who died in 1993. Haldeman hoped that in the future law enforcement personnel who were at Mount Carmel in 1993 would report what happened there. She felt that one day God would reveal the ultimate purpose of the deaths.


Media representatives were actors in the drama in 1993 leading to the conflict at Mount Carmel that resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents and 80 Branch Davidians. There was a lot of behind the scenes activity as Waco Tribune-Herald and KWTX-TV reporters and photographers attempted to be in place to cover the ATF raid on February 28, resulting in the inadvertent tipping off of the Branch Davidians. ATF commanders had the authority to call off the raid when they learned the element of surprise was lost (Maxwell and Smith, 1993, §75), but they did not. After the debacle on February 28, the media depicted the Branch Davidians as “cultists,” dehumanizing the Branch Davidians by erasing them by focusing on depicting Koresh as a deranged and manipulative “cult leader” who brainwashed his followers.

After 1993, the FBI and other federal agents continued to have a stake in blaming Koresh and the adult Branch Davidians for what happened, and the surviving Branch Davidians had a stake in humanizing the members of their community and seeking legal redress. Religion scholars and their professional associations became more proactive in making their expertise available to reporters. Reporters, especially in the print media, likewise took steps to improve religion reporting and to reach out to appropriate scholarly experts. Despite these efforts, however, anticultist entrepreneurs such as Rick Ross still had an impact on media treatments of new religions.

The Branch Davidian story is multifaceted with numerous actors and points of view. The framing of the story in the print media shifted from 1993 to 2003, from a simplistic “cult” mass suicide perspective to questions being raised about excessive force utilized by militarized law enforcement agencies.[6] There is still room for improvement in reporting about religions and especially new religions, but scholars and reporters are making efforts to collaborate in their joint pedagogical mission of research and informing the public.

The media are significant actors in events leading to episodes of violence involving religious groups. The media are not simply bystanders in these dramas (J. R. Hall, 1995; Wright, 1997; Richardson and van Driel, 1997; Wessinger, 2000). Therefore, the stakes are high regarding whether or not media report on religious groups fairly, accurately, and in a nuanced manner. The media also have a crucial function in reporting on an American law enforcement establishment that remains heavily militarized. This has been highlighted for me in 2004 as I have observed the reporting on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison. The photographs taken of military personnel posing triumphantly over the Iraqi prisoners they abused remind me of the “trophy photos” taken by federal agents over the smoldering ruins of Mount Carmel and the charred bodies of Branch Davidians (Mount Carmel museum and Borst 2003b). It is well that reporters, scholars, mental health experts, and law enforcement agents continue to cultivate reflexivity about our biases, values, and goals, so that we do not contribute to future scenarios in which there is unnecessary loss of life.


“Alleged kidnappers caught in Ocean Shores.” (1991, October 30). Bainbridge Island (Wash.) Review.

Borst, B. (2003a, April 17). Press release.

______. (2003b). Website, “The Facts about Waco.” Accessed October 3.

______. (2003c). Interview on October 27.

Breault, Marc, and Martin King. 1993. Inside the Cult: A Member’s Chilling, Exclusive Account of Madness and Depravity in David Koresh’s Compound. New York: Signet Books.

Committee on the Judiciary. (1995). Activities of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies toward the Branch Davidians (Part I). Serial No. 72. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Dratt, J. and Goldstone, J. L. (Producers). (2003, April 17). Primetime: Witness: The Children of Waco [Television broadcast]. New York: ABC News

England, M., and McCormick, D. (1993). “Sinful Messiah” series. Waco Tribune-Herald. February 27-March 1.

“Flashpoint in History.” 2003. Waco Tribune Herald. February 23-April 19.

Haldeman, Bonnie. (2003). Interview August 17.

Hall, J.R. (1995). “Public Narratives and the Apocalyptic Sect: From Jonestown to Mt. Carmel.” In S. A. Wright, ed., Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (pp. 205-35). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hancock, L. (1996). “Agents Reach Settlement in Waco Court.” Dallas Morning News. October 18.

______. (2004). Personal communications in January.

Jason Scott v. Rick Ross et al. (1995). “Verdict Form” and “Order.”

Lowe, V. (1993). “FBI Uses Briefings as a Tactical Weapon.” Dallas Morning News, March 25.

Matteson, C. (2003). Interviews August 15-17.

Martin, K. (2003). Interview on August 16.

Martin, S. (2003). Interview on August 16.

Maxwell, D., and Smith, C.. (1993). “Report of Investigation.” Texas Department of Public Safety, Criminal Law Enforcement Division, May 11.

Rawls, W. (1993). “Debacle at Waco: Print and Broadcast, National and Local, Journalism Displayed Its Unseemly Side.” Nieman Reports, Summer 1993, 12-15.

Richardson, J. T., and van Driel, B. (1997). “Journalists’ Attitudes toward New Religious Movements.” Review of Religious Research 39, no. 2, December, 116-36.

State of Arizona v. Rick Alan Ross. (1975). “Presentence Investigation.” November 26.

Tabor, J.D., and Gallagher, E. V. (1995). Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wessinger, C. (2000). How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. New York: Seven Bridges Press. The entire text can be found on ereserves at the Monroe library website of Loyola University New Orleans. Contact Wessinger for the password to access the site.

Wright, S. A. (1995). “Another View of the Mt. Carmel Standoff.” In S. A. Wright, ed., Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict (pp. xiii-xxvi). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

______. (1997). “Media Coverage of Unconventional Religions: Any ‘Good News’ for Minority Faiths?” Review of Religious Research 39, no. 2, December, 101-15.

[1] Uncited factual information summarized in this essay is drawn from my chapter on the Branch Davidians in Wessinger (2000), which contains full citations.

I am deeply indebted to Lee Hancock for providing me with invaluable materials relating to this case. I am equally indebted to surviving Branch Davidians for granting me interviews: Catherine Matteson, Clive Doyle, Bonnie Haldeman, Sheila Martin, and Kimberly Martin. I also thank Brad Borst and Lee Hancock for permitting me to interview them. I greatly appreciate the comments I received from Lee Hancock, Stuart Wright, Rebecca Moore, Eugene Gallagher, and James T. Richardson on earlier drafts of this article. I thank Lonnie Davis and Claire Borowik for sending materials.

This paper is part of a longer unpublished paper.

[2] In 1993 the media framing of the Branch Davidians as “cultists” was based on several decades of depictions of new religions as “cults,” a stereotype applied to diverse groups (Richardson and van Driel, 1997). The mass suicide-murders at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 solidified this stereotype that was used to characterize the Branch Davidians in 1993 (J. R. Hall, 1995). The consequence was that in 1993 most of the news coverage about the tragedy at Mount Carmel depicted the Branch Davidians as members of a “cult” that was solely responsible for the deaths. A poll by CNN/Gallup reported that 73 percent of Americans believed that the FBI decision to use CS gas on the residence was “responsible” and 93 percent of Americans blamed the Branch Davidians’ leader, David Koresh, for the deaths (Wright, 1995, xv).

[3] A dispatcher for an ambulance company on standby for the ATF revealed that she tipped off Mulloney. Witherspoon did not reveal his source.

[4] Perry’s 2003 remarks differed in tone from his assertions in 1993 and 1995. Perry’s 1995 congressional testimony stated that in addition to the girls being socialized for eventual sexual relationships with Koresh, the children were disciplined in abusive ways. His written report submitted to Congress said that the children lived in “an abusive and psychologically-destructive” environment. He also reported that he had protested the blaring of high-decibel sounds at Mount Carmel as harmful to the children. During the siege Dr. Perry advised FBI agents that the Branch Davidians had a belief system that made them capable of “ ‘abstract’ suicide” and that the aggressive tactical actions made the Branch Davidians feel “under threatæunder siege, thereby making rational decision-making on the part of Koresh or the Davidians increasingly difficult.” Dr. Perry’s report stated that he did not know how the analysis he gave the FBI “was used (or misused)” (Committee of the Judiciary, 1995, 214-16, 234-41, quotes on 241).

[5] In 1975 Rick Ross conspired to rob a jewelry shop. In 1991, Ross and two other men were accused of kidnapping a member of a Pentecostal church in order to deprogram him. Rick Ross, the Cult Awareness Network, and the two other men were found liable in 1994 and ordered to pay punitive damages (State of Arizona v. Rick Alan Ross; “Alleged kidnappers caught” 1991; Jason Scott v. Rick Ross, et al 1995). Rick Ross and the Cult Awareness Network subsequently filed bankruptcy. The original Cult Awareness Network went out of business, but Rick Ross remained an outspoken anticultist seeking media attention.

[6] Television depictions still relied heavily on the “cult” stereotype. The thesis of the ABC Primetime show “The Children of Waco” (Dratt and Goldstone, 2003) that aired on April 17, 2003, was that the children who came out of Mount Carmel during the siege knew that their parents were going to choose to die with David Koresh, and that therefore there was nothing FBI agents could have done to prevent the tragedy. Surviving Branch Davidians (S. Martin, 2003; K. Martin, 2003) noted that the young people remaining in Waco were not included on the show, because their statements did not fit the agenda of the producers. The young people who were depicted on the show refused to accept retired FBI agent Byron Sage’s characterization of their parents as being completely to blame, and asked about the responsibility of the federal agents. Brad Borst (29), who lived at Mount Carmel for five years with his mother and subsequently became a police officer, was particularly critical of the producer, Jude Dratt, who he said attempted to get the young people to make certain statements for the camera (Borst, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c).