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