The Day CNN Melted Down In Boston
Yesterday was not a good day for the Cable "News" Network.
Nearly as soon as the bombs exploded at the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, the national news media, most especially the cable news networks aided and abetted by the “instant response” culture created by social media networks such as Twitter, have mishandled this story in the same manner that they seem to do after in many high profile, sensationalized, cases. On the day of the bombings alone, The New York Post reported two stories regarding the numbers of dead and the supposed fact that authorities had a Saudi national “in custody” at a local hospital. As it turned out, the number of dead was far below what the Post reported, and the Saudi national turned out to be a witness, not a suspect or “person of interest.” On that same day, many news outlets falsely reported that a fire at the JFK Library was actually an explosion related to the attacks at the Marathon, and that there were multiple unexploded devices found by the police in the hours after the explosion. Both of those stories turned out to be untrue, but were reported for hours as fact, and became part of the official narrative of the event as it spread across the Internet on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The second day of media coverage on Tuesday was a slightly tamer, only because law enforcement was not sharing much information with the press throughout the day, but that didn’t stop everyone from Wolf Blizter to Sean Hannity from speculating about who might be responsible for the attacks and engaging in mostly amateurish detective work that seemed to be designed to do nothing more than fill up air time. It wasn’t until yesterday, though, that things became truly pathetic:
At 1:42 p.m., the Associated Press, citing a law enforcement official, reported that an arrest was “imminent” and that the suspect would be brought to court. One minute later, Reuters, citing a government source, reported that investigators did not yet have the name of a suspect and made no mention of an arrest.
Then, at 1:45 p.m., CNN’s King - who had earlier broken the news the a suspect had been identified on video - went on air and said that “an arrest has been made.” King cited two sources: a local law enforcement source he had spoken with, and another unnamed source who had spoken with his colleague Fran Townsend, former President Bush’s terrorism advisor. Not long after, Fox News and The Boston Globe were issuing similar reports. CBS Boston, citing a law enforcement official, reported that an arrest had been made, but then quickly pulled that report from its website.
At 1:55 p.m. ten minutes after CNN’s initial report, NBC’s Williams went on air and said no arrest had been made.
“We’ve been told by several sources that there is no arrest. Then it begins to break down from there, about whether – let’s start at the other end – what do they know?” Williams reported. “Information that is pointing in totally different directions is coming from normally very dependable sources, and we can’t just flip a coin and pick one. We have to have them line up before we can say for sure what it is. All we can say for certain is that all of our sources say no arrest.”
Confusion ensued. CNN and Fox News and even the AP would reiterate around the 2 o’clock hour that an arrest had been made. Meanwhile, CBS News and ABC News were reporting that one had not been made. POLITICO was among those citing CNN’s reporting, though it quickly revised its story to reflect other conflicting reports.
Around 2:10 p.m., Williams once again made his report clear: “All we can say for certain, is that all of our sources say no arrest,” he said on NBC. CNN held its ground. As late as 2:25 p.m., The Boston Globe was still reporting that a suspect was being taken to the courthouse.
Meanwhile, CNN started to seem nervous. On air, anchors and contributors discussed the importance of “not getting ahead of ourselves.”
Then, at 2:28 p.m. the tide turned: Tom Fuentes, the former FBI Assistant Director, came on CNN and cited three sources, including two high-level sources, all of whom said that no arrest had been made.
“There has been no arrest, and in fact a suspect has not been identified by name yet,” he told CNN anchors Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper. “They’re looking for someone, but they don’t have anyone in custody yet and they’re looking for identification.”
The discomfort on air was palpable. Cuomo scrambled: “Ok, that would be — we don’t know what’s right or not right at this point.” For more than five minutes, the anchors discussed the importance of being cautious.
Some would say that the initial reporting went awry with the AP’s incorrect report that an arrest was “imminent,” but it was really the strong insistence of both CNN’s King and his colleague Fran Townsend that an arrest had actually been made — King even went so far as to say that the person arrest was “dark-skinned” while engaging in an absurd dance that made it seem like he didn’t want to come right out and say that he meant “Middle Eastern” — that set the other networks, except for NBC, off on their own mad rush to make sure they were part of getting the story “first” rather than right. The story about the arrest and a suspect’s supposedly imminent appearance in Federal Court (although if a suspect were arrested yesterday afternoon, his Court appearance wouldn’t necessarily be “imminent”) spread so quickly that crowds began gathering outside the Federal Courthouse in downtown Boston. The spectacle only became more absurd set against the backdrop of the reports of the ricin letters in Washington, D.C. and reports of suspicious packages that led to evacuations in Boston.
In the end, though, it was CNN that, once again, displayed the worst of journalism yesterday. As in June of last year, when the network’s Supreme Court correspondents stopped reading the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act less than halfway through Judge Roberts’ opinion and erroneously reported that the law had been struck down, the network that supposedly prides itself as being “hard news” as opposed to the more opinion based programming on Fox and MSNBC found itself caught up in the desire to be first rather that correct and jumped on a story that turned out to be wrong. I don’t doubt that King and Townsend each had a source that said that an arrest had been made — King’s was supposedly local while Townsend’s was Federal — they each only relied on one source rather than following the traditional journalists rule of having at least two sources before you go with a story (and, no,I don’t think that the fact that two sources each had one source is close enough). The result was a media meltdown of epic proportions that was mocked relentlessly on Twitter yesterday afternoon, and became the subject of this epic Jon Stewart piece:
There used to be a time when CNN was the “go to” network for international and national crises and, largely, that was for good reason. Given the way that they’ve handled breaking news stories lately, though, I’ve got to wonder how long that’s going to continue.