CNN’s John King interviewing then Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in 2010. Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defense.
Yesterday, BTR’s Dane Feldman diligently recorded the biggest media blunders in covering the Boston Marathon bombing story through the week. Thankfully, the remaining suspect in the investigation, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, was apprehended last night by authorities after a shootout yesterday morning left his accomplice and brother, Tamerlan, dead.
It’s hard to tell at this point, given the engrossing details and long-term impact of the investigation, if these transgressions of fact will be remembered with any real significance come Monday. A frequently cited (though arguably outdated) rule of post-mass media politics tells us that if the error is small enough, then John Q. Public will forgot anything anyone did wrong by the end of weekend and all is forgiven. That’s why if you have any bad news you need to say on television, you should tell everyone on Friday. Bonus points if your Friday ends on a distractingly good note, like it did yesterday.
How strange it is to see that the integrity of media professionals, not politicians or corporate PR firms, now relies on such a disappointing truism. Further, it propagates what I consider to be one of the most troubling developments to come in the wake of the attacks. That being, how quickly everyone around me seemed so ready to accept the fact that the old media wasn’t going to get the story right the first time, and probably not the second time either.
I say “everyone around me” because the Boston Marathon bombings may have been the first time that I can remember, perhaps since 9/11, of having a very particular kind of communal moment: watching the news with my peers, all huddled around our office televisions because, well, who could work at a time like this?
Perhaps some reading this caught the story on our mobile devices or the usual social media channels – but for verification, where else do we go to know absolutely that something happened? Kronkite’s old haunts of the ever-reliable boob tube, that’s where. In their quest for ratings, television’s guardians today have entirely forgotten that role because of the rock-paper-scissors game with new media.
For the last few years, you hardly needed a Google search to find a reputable news source or savvy commentator documenting how, as the infantile cliché goes, ‘the news doesn’t break it tweets.’ The trouble is, not only is it the distilled news that tweets (several hours later), sending followers basically informed on their way, but it’s the inkling that something might be happening on television that can be ascertained from a suspicious Facebook status laden with racial epithets.
Of course, that all depends on whom you’re following, when they catch the story and tweet about it, when you log on, whether you’re driven to investigate through other channels, and who or what those outlets are. Then the game starts all over again. If driven to verification through a non-internet based source, all a viewer need do is pick an unfortunate time to watch and devote the slender window of attention typical of your average working American in order to leave the TV a few minutes later under an entirely false impression.
For instance, let’s say you saw a tweet saying “Boston Marathon Blasts Kill 2, Police Say http://nyti.ms/XCKCcL CAMEL JOCKEY DID IT! I BLAME OBAMA N THE LIBS 4 B-ING WEAK LIKE THEY R!” from @solomongrundy6 shortly after it posted at 2:32 pm ET on Monday. You click The New York Times article (and probably whatever you find on Facebook) to confirm. Since that article is not nearly as updated by Monday afternoon as it will be by the time the final tally of 15 print reporters all contribute to the piece over the next 24 hours, you turn to your television knowing something is going on.
If you flip to CNN at around 3:20 pm (as I did) and only tune in for a few moments before returning to your job, you glean from Wolf Blitzer’s interview with a thoroughly vetted eye whitness (who repeatedly mentioned he “didn’t get a good look” at the incident) that there was indeed a pair of blasts a mile from the marathon finish line. Then the icing on the cake, just for the peanut gallery: Uh, maybe Tax Day had something to do with it?
Yes, early reporting is necessary and nearly always flawed, but that’s not the heart of my complaint. No one questions and nearly everyone criticizes that, in an effort to keep up with the new media, the old is relying on early reporting more than ever. What is a shame is how we, the audience at home, are becoming so used to it. You can no longer tune in for 10 minutes upon hearing there’s breaking news taking place and expect to walk away with a grounded impression of what is going on. Now it is widely understood that you need to check back 30 minutes later (when the uncontested old media of the 9/11-era and prior) would have gotten the story right anyway.
The same goes for the minute John King reports a suspect has been taken into custody. In 2013, how can we believe that nearly any detail of a story is true within the first hour of hearing breaking news anymore? By comparison, the widespread initial reporting that Ryan Lanza, not his brother Adam, killed 20 school children in Newtown, Conn. in December seems a lot more responsible. I mean, at least they got his last name right.
Even the incorrectly reported death of Rep. Gabby Giffords after the Tuscon, AZ shooting in Jan. 2011 was much more reliable (at least they got both her last name and first name right). To their credit, there was at least some wrist slapping from within the media on that occasion. During the Boston Marathon bombing suspect manhunt, who has time for that? Oh yes, Comedy Central – the most trusted name in news for those who grew up on the internet.
What is only more laughable is when elites scratch their heads and wonder why truther conspiracy theorists, relying entirely on inaccurate yet curiously amplified early reporting, are gaining noteworthy attention. Yes, where would anyone get the slightest idea that it was those damn Arabs (or, you know, Tea Partiers) who attacked us yet again? I have no idea.
What I lament especially is that these words are likely in vain. The Boston marathon attacks are nearly a week behind us. With only Reddit police and fake news commentators to watch the watchmen, the war is almost certainly lost by now.
Who lost? Oh, I don’t know. Anyone who believes in reason, integrity, accountability, patience, basic understanding of current events, substantive public discourse, and the ability of our voting body to operate in the same universe as our elected governing bodies.
The list, most unfortunately, is growing.