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Media Tour Of San Bernardino Shooters’ Home Mostly Shows Media At Its Worst

Media San Bernardino Shooters Home

If you were watching any of the cable news networks yesterday just around Noon eastern time, you were witness to one of the more bizarre sights in quite some time as the home that Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik lived before carrying out Wednesday’s massacre in San Bernardino, and from which they apparently plotted and prepared for whatever it was they have planned, was opened to the public and a media feeding frenzy unlike few things one has ever seen before:

REDLANDS, Calif. — There was the can of baby formula left on the counter, and the dishes stacking up in the kitchen sink. A cookies-and-cream ice cream cake sat in the freezer, half-eaten. And upstairs, in one of the bedrooms, a white crib had been piled high with pillows, blankets and toys for a baby.

On Friday, dozens of journalists from around the world crammed into a two-story townhouse, elbowing their way in to see the residence that suddenly became a notorious crime scene, apparently used as both a family home and a bomb-making factory. There, spread across the bathroom counter, were the family photographs; elsewhere, strewn on a bed, were papers, business cards and California driver’s licenses.

The home in this quiet suburb, just a few miles from the scene of an attack that left 14 people dead, belonged to the suspects, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 29. The couple lived there with his mother, according to the family’s lawyers, and their daughter, who was born May 21. The house had been scoured by law enforcement, and then, with the permission of the landlord, it was the journalists’ turn.

They perused closets and cabinets. A television reporter asked his producer to check the family’s calendar to see if anything had been marked down for Dec. 2 (it did not appear so). Some news channels showed live images from inside the home; one network had a commentator walking through with a camera crew, narrating the tour from room to room. The New York Times also had a reporter and a photographer inside the home.

But instead of a cache of weapons or parts for making explosives — which the authorities had removed — they found what would have looked like a relatively normal cluttered household, notwithstanding a shredded front door that had been ripped from its hinges and cast aside as law enforcement officers broke in.

There were signs throughout the home of the residents’ Muslim faith: the sticker pasted on a chest of drawers (“Praise be to Allah Who relieved me from suffering and gave me relief”). And there were the books: “The Characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad” in a linen closet and “Common Mistakes Regarding Prayer” on a bedside table.

As images spread on television and the Internet, concerns were raised about whether the free-for-all at the house jeopardized the integrity of a site that had just been handled as a crime scene. Some commentators criticized the exploration of the contents of a private home as invasive.

Questions even came up in a White House news briefing on Friday. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, referred the questions to the F.B.I.; Mr. Earnest said he was “just watching it like the rest of you.”

F.B.I. officials confirmed that they had searched the home and were finished.

The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, said at a news conference in Washington that he had seen the video of the reporters in the townhouse. “I think I’m neither unhappy nor happy,” he said. “When we are done with a location, we return it to their rightful owners and we have to leave an inventory under the law about what was taken. So, people got to see our great criminal justice system in action.”

On Friday morning, after the authorities were finished, the owner, Doyle Miller, arrived to assess its condition. He allowed journalists inside the house (though not the garage, which the authorities say was where the bombs were made).

“That just opened the flood,” Mr. Miller’s wife, Judy, said in a brief interview. “It got way out of hand.”

After the criticism emerged of the live coverage, CNN and Fox News said in statements that they had been allowed inside by the landlord and were cautious about what they showed on air. CNN said it avoided “close-up footage of any material that could be considered sensitive or identifiable, such as photos or ID cards,” and Fox said the same.

On MSNBC, however, the reporter on the scene displayed photographs. “Let’s not show the child, Kerry,” the anchor, Andrea Mitchell, told the reporter, Kerry Sanders. “Let’s cut away from that.” The network later apologized, saying it “should not have been aired without review.”

While there were representatives from several major media organizations present during the media scrum that stormed through the house on Friday morning local time, it was the coverage on the three major cable networks that came under the most fire, largely because all three networks chose to broadcast all or a portion of their reporter’s journey into the house live on the air with seemingly little regard for what they were showing, whether it was relevant to the story they were covering, and whether or not it might have a negative impact on other, innocent, parties. The worst offender was NBC News reporter Kerry Sanders, who spent his time in the house doing things such as rifling through photographs, including photographs of a young girl who appeared to be at least three or four years old and bizarrely speculated about whether or not these were pictures of the couple’s daughter until anchor Andrea Mitchell reminded him that the child in question is only six months old. Later, after rifling through more paperwork that law enforcement had left behind, most likely because it was largely irrelevant to their investigation. This included what appeared to be an old, expired drivers license that appeared to belong to Farook’s mother which Sanders then held up to the camera, and producers chose to broadcast live without blurring out any of the identifying information. Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher has posted much of the video of the MSNBC coverage, only a few minutes of which gives you a pretty good taste of how bizarre the entire thing actually was. MSNBC later expressed regret for some of its coverage, but there was no indication at the time that anyone was really thinking about what they were doing. Cameras obsessively showed us clothes hanging in closets, furnishings, and a baby’s crib in the corner of one room that had obviously been used for the child that the two shooters abandoned to family just before going on their shooting spree. There were some interesting things that the press tour showed, such as dishes sitting in the sink as if they had just recently been washed, and half eaten food on a table in the kitchen, which seems to suggest that whomever had been in the home last, presumably Farook’s wife, had left at the last minute in something of a hurry, something that could theoretically tell us something about Wednesday’s timeline.

Above all, the feeding frenzy of the media scrum raised questions from those watching this unfold live on television, as well as some of the talking heads on cable news wondering whether evidence that could be crucial to an investigation was being compromised. To a person, the group of law enforcement and legal “experts” that happened to be on CNN at the time were shocked at what they were seeing, calling it a law enforcement failure, and lamenting the evidence that was potentially being trampled upon as cameramen, reporters, and eventually neighbors and their dogs made their way through the hous. Ken White, a California attorney who has spent time working both prosecution and defense at the Federal level in California took to Twitter to express his opinion about the whole bizarre spectacle. Eventually, the entire thing was shut down by the landlord and his wife, with the help of local law enforcement. For his part, the landlord said that he had been told the night before that law enforcement was done with the home and that he was free to do with it what he wished since he owned the property.

Initially at least, there was some comments that came across social media that purported to quote local law enforcement as saying the property had not been released. Additionally, the comments of the CNN panelists noted above are ones that, at least from the lay perspective seemed to at least be worth inquiring about since it still isn’t clear whether the couple may have had contact with, or assistance from others as they put together their plans. To some degree, that turned out to be untrue when the F.B.I. assistant director in charge of the case confirmed that the bureau, which is now running the investigation, had finished with its work and released the property and that what happened after that wasn’t his concern. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the media was not permitted to go into the detached garage that is part of the property, and is believed to be the location where the couple may have constructed their crude pipe bombs and storied their ammunition. Whether that was a choice of the landlord, or because law enforcement had not fully released that part of the scene is not clear. Nonetheless, to those used to watching police dramas on television were CSI teams spend long periods of time going over crime scenes with a fine-toothed comb, it seemed unusual but even from the pictures broadcast it was clear that much had been removed from the home before the press got there and its unclear what evidentiary value there would be in clothes, old paperwork, and dishes in the sink (all of which were presumably photographed extensively), especially since the only suspects in the case were dead.

While the “trampling on evidence” concern seems to have been answered, that doesn’t mean that the way the media acted isn’t being criticized. Kelly McBride at Poyner, for example, argued that while it wasn’t per se improper for the media to seek access to the home after law enforcement was done with it, broadcasting it live was not appropriate:

As a reporter, your primary obligation is to gather information that will help your audience understand all facets of the story. Are you likely to find information in the home of the suspects that could shed some light on the facts? You’ll never know unless you go in.

But first you must determine if you have legal permission to enter the residence. Has the property owner indicated that you can go in? Have law enforcement cleared the scene?

Reporters always have an obligation to ensure they report information accurately and responsibly. Because any information you gather by prowling through someone’s home is inherently out of context, the newsrooms that use this information have a duty to put it in context.

Think about the conclusions that one could draw by walking through your home. What medicine is in your bathroom? What books are on your shelf? How messy is your bedroom? Without context, this information becomes the source of pure speculation.

It requires a rigorous reporting and editing process to determine what information is relevant and what additional reporting is required to present that information in a responsible context. Broadcasting live precludes that process and makes the reporters more voyeuristic than journalistic.

McBride’s point is well taken. On some level, I suppose, what was inside the home is relevant news in the sense that it has to the story about how this couple was able to live a seemingly normal suburban life while at the same time constructing pipe bombs, gathering arms and ammunition, and apparently becoming so radicalized by jihadist ideology that they were ready to go out and commit perhaps multiple acts of mass murder if they could get away with it. The fact that all of this happened without neighbors, or even family, really realizing what was going on, is important not just as a human interest story because it goes to the issue of the homegrown, self-radicalized terrorist and the difficulty of detecting plots by such persons to begin with. At the same time, trampling through the house and broadcasting the entire thing live without any regard to whether what you’re showing is relevant, or whether it may violate the rights or privacy of others and putting them them in potential danger, is clearly not responsible journalism. In that regard, the responsibility lies not just with the reporters on scene, but also with the producers back at the studio who chose to run with the entire thing live and, of course, a media culture that feeds on reports like this where information is just thrown at the viewer without bothering to determine if its even relevant.

Photo via ABC13 Eyewitness News

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Worst. Rummage. Sale. Ever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  2. Mu says:

    You’d think a landlord would have had to wait for the lease to expire before showing the apartment to prospective new tenants.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. Hal_10000 says:

    I’ve read about old cases from the 19th and early 20th centuries where the media would trample the scene, making a thorough investigation of a prominent case impossible. Never thought I’d witness it in real life. It was surreal.

    Oh, well. As a friend pointed out on Twitter, 19th century morality and science are making a comeback so why not 19th century reporting?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  4. Guarneri says:

    Did our intrepid reporters find any multi-automatic round weapons? Our fearless leader is absolutely ON that issue:

    “We know that the killers in San Bernardino used military-style assault weapons — weapons of war — to kill as many people as they could,” he said. “It’s another tragic reminder that here in America it’s way too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun.”

    Well, yeah, but what about weapons of mass destruction, like a gas guzzling, CO2 spewing black SUV ?? That thing could take out LA, Frisco, NYC and Miami in one fell swoop.

    It’s just as wicked as it seems.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 13

  5. Pch101 says:

    This is what happens with a media driven by a free market. The need to attract eyeballs has done much worse than this.

    The landlord had no business allowing the media into the unit in the first place. The rental agreement goes to the estate; the executor should have granted permission.

    I wouldn’t worry about the place’s value as a crime scene, as the FBI has already been through it and taken what it wanted. The media just found the leftovers (literally, such as the food in the fridge.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. James Pearce says:

    @Guarneri:

    Well, yeah, but what about weapons of mass destruction, like a gas guzzling, CO2 spewing black SUV ??

    What about this story made you think of that?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  7. Guarneri says:

    @James Pearce:

    The entire narrative of this Administration and it’s sycophants surrounding real and practical threats facing western countries. Heh, why just this AM Obama is still unsure of what his own FBI knows, and is still slavishly whipping the gun angle.

    What’s wrong, Pearce, can’t break out of your small, linear thinking mode??

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 11

  8. appleannie says:

    All together ookie. I shut down my computer and watched Harry Potter flix for most of the rest of the evening. If I were family, I’d sue the landlord’s dumb ass then go after the networks..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Paul L. says:

    I blame law enforcement. If they wanted the “Crime Scene” secured. They should have secured it. You know that yellow tape. I side with the landlord being able to use his property as he sees fit.
    @Mu:

    landlord would have had to wait for the lease to expire

    The tenants are dead. I would guess that expires the lease.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 7

  10. Pch101 says:

    @Paul L.:

    The tenants are dead. I would guess that expires the lease.

    No, the lease goes to the estate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  11. Todd says:

    I don’t have live TV, so didn’t see any of this. But I did (and I feel really guilty about it) click on a link from FB that brought me to a story with pictures from the apartment. The captions were hilarious and ridiculous at the same time. I literally rolled my eyes at one that showed a kitchen drawer with the caption pointing out that it contained “a hatchet!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Tyrell says:

    These sort of “show” news events of sensational locations should not be allowed. I have seen photos of people going through the morbid, gruesome residence of Ed Gein, also known as the “Texas chainsaw murderer” *. Thank goodness that today most police departments do not allow that sort of thing. This shows how low and unprofessional the news media has sunk. No wonder ratings are in decline.
    * He was from Wisconsin, not Texas. He did not use a chain saw. He was responsible for two murders, both were people who resembled his mother. There has never been any proof connecting him to any other murders. He was sent to a mental hospital, where he was described as a model patient. He died in ’84.
    What happened to the third suspect ?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. grumpy realist says:
  14. Paul L. says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Your link is for Rent Controlled San Francisco but I would be not surprised if it applies to all of the People’s Republic of California.
    I stand corrected. However

    If the tenant had a month-to-month lease agreement, notice of the tenant’s death acts as the end of the lease, and the executor’s responsibility ends 30 days after the tenant last paid rent.

    I wonder how long until the shooters family officially informs the landlord of the death and if they will pay any rent for the rest of the lease.
    The family could sue the Landlord for letting the reporters in.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  15. Pch101 says:

    @Paul L.:

    Your link is for Rent Controlled San Francisco but I would be not surprised if it applies to all of the People’s Republic of California.

    Eesh. Not only do you lack a basic understanding of contracts, but you felt compelled to show off a bit of right-wing ignorance. Not at all impressive.

    A lease is a bundle of rights AND obligations. Those obligations don’t terminate on the day that someone dies. Naturally, those go to the estate, as do the rights.

    If you were under the impression that car and credit card payments end on the day that you die, then you were sorely mistaken. Agreements don’t just vaporize on the day that someone dies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pch101: I’ve been spending the previous 6 months being the personal representative of an estate in my family. Allow me to second your notion that the rights, and particularly the obligations, of a person do not end when they die.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  17. Paul L. says:

    @Pch101:

    A lease is a bundle of rights AND obligations. Those obligations don’t terminate on the day that someone dies.

    Rights AND obligations are between a citizen and Government. Those do not apply between 2 parties in a private transaction.
    From wiki
    A lease is a contractual arrangement calling for the lessee (user) to pay the lessor (owner) for use of an asset

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  18. Pch101 says:

    I can see that this is hopeless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  19. Gustopher says:

    There was the can of baby formula left on the counter, and the dishes stacking up in the kitchen sink. A cookies-and-cream ice cream cake sat in the freezer, half-eaten.

    I can fully understand leaving the dishes undone before going on a murderous rampage that will likely lead to your death — doing dishes is a pain.

    But I cannot abide by someone not finishing off the ice cream cake. They weren’t going to get a second chance.

    These are not Americans we are dealing with. They’re something else — something foreign and something scary.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  20. Tony W says:

    The death of journalism (and rise of profit-focused sensationalism in its place) has wide reaching ramifications. Our democratic republic requires access to accurate information, and the press used to serve that role – however imperfectly, but generally with decent intent (many newspapers notwithstanding).

    It was not that long ago that the major television news organizations had a firewall separating their operations from advertising and other influence which might corrupt. Today that firewall is gone and news is a profit center like everything else. Stand by after the break for the latest report on some Disney moving releasing in theatres this week….

    (paraphrasing)“So you get what we had here last week. Well…I don’t like it any more than you do.”

    Maybe these jokers walking through the apartment should go home and put on a WWCD bracelet (What Would Cronkite Do?).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Grewgills says:

    @Paul L.:
    They lived their with his mother and their daughter who are both still alive. The landlord opening the apartment almost certainly broke the terms of their rental agreement. I’d guess that he got a little something under the table to open up the apartment that helped him forget his responsibilities to the remaining tenants.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0