The Evolution of Bad Journalism

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The incorrect reporting of an arrest after the Boston Marathon bombings reminds me of another big story botched by the media more than a dozen years ago.

I was with the national press traveling with George Bush in 2000, when shottie reporting of the election results turned the state of Florida into a circus, and forced the Supreme Court to choose a president.  “We don’t just have egg on our face.”  Tom Brokaw said on election night.  “We have an omelet.”

But this was different.  It wasn’t a national tragedy we were dealing with back then.  It was a national election that turned the media into an international joke.

The media became a joke again Wednesday.  But it was no laughing matter.

News organizations have always believed the most important thing to be…is first. First in information.  First on the scene.  First in video.  Wednesday afternoon, CNN was first.  First in getting it all wrong.

At 1:45, the CNN Breaking News Banner kicked in across our television screens.  Complete with ominous music and computer generated graphics created to signal calamity, they proudly and boldly reported, “ARREST MADE IN BOMBINGS CASE”  It didn’t take long for other media outlets to scramble their way to the top of “Speculation Mountain.”

Within minutes, Fox News was claiming a Federal Marshall had a suspect in custody.  Their anchor going so far as to report, “They got ‘em!”

Enter the AP.

Just before 2:00 o’clock, the Associated Press claimed “sources have confirmed” an arrest.  It’s not clear, exactly, who their sources were.  But if it was CNN, they had a big problem that was about to get even bigger.

Minutes after the AP joined in the fray of ineptitude, CNN went further down the rabbit hole, deciding to give a description of the man in custody.  A man who didn’t even exist.

“According to my sources…” John King of CNN began telling the country.  “The suspect is a dark-skinned male individual.”  Apparently, CNN was the only entity to see the intrinsic journalistic relevance of that information. Information, by the way, which just so happened to include the Ethiopian runner who won the marathon earlier in the day in as a suspect.

What bothers me most about King’s blunder, is that he didn’t give a description.  He issued a characterization.  It was useless, inflammatory, and did absolutely nothing to advance the discussion of the story.  Other than to make CNN the story.

Twenty minutes after that egregious report, John King and Wolf Blitzer were backtracking faster than Michael Jackson could moonwalk.  But not nearly as graceful.

By half past 2:00, CNN was forced to report “Conflicting Reports of Bombing Arrest.”  Essentially telling us the Breaking News they’d been broadcasting for nearly an hour was wrong.  And to remind us just how cataclysmic their mistake was, they continued to keep their Breaking News Banner on the screen.  Basically, breaking the news that their breaking news was, well…broke.

Around this time, the Internet began to snowball within the frenzy of inaccuracy.  Boston.com reporting (in BIG BOLD LETTERS) MARATHON BOMB SUSPECT IN CUSTODY.

Interestingly, just above that caption (in tiny bold letters) read this:

US Attorney’s Office: There is no marathon bombing suspect in custody and no arrest.”

And what about the New York Post?  They were busy splashing photos of two men with a gigantic caption labeling the unidentified persons as, “BAG MEN.”  Later in the day the Post issued an update. Again, prominently displaying the images of the “BAG MEN” on the front page, telling us those two men – the two men THEY incorrectly identified – had, in fact, been cleared.  Never once bothering to apologize for their abhorrent mistake.

Incidentally, this coming from the very same paper who told us immediately after the bombings, there were 12 people dead and that “Authorities ID the suspect as a Saudi National.”

By days end the media’s descent from “Speculation Mountain” was all but complete. But the damage had been done.

We live in a world with a news cycle that never sleeps.  There are cable outlets, and magazines, bloggers, Tweets and Facebook posts.  Unnamed sources can be anyone with a keyboard or a cell phone.  If you believe the line between journalism and entertainment is blurred, you’d be wrong.  It’s non-existent.  The journalistic bar has been set so low, we can now step on it.  Still, that’s not an excuse to substitute being correctly 2nd with being 1st and wrong.

The FBI issued notices to the media asking them to dial down the rhetoric.  Imploring them to, “exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”  I hope the media listens.  I hope they show restraint and begin to display some respect.  Not just to those who were injured or lost their lives.  But to their families, the residents of those surrounding communities, and to the city of Boston.  A city which, at present, finds itself in the middle of chaos, confusion, and lockdowns.  While doing its best to make its way through a series of wakes.

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