Just when it was starting to look like cable news might have actually learned something from its rush-to-judgment sins in covering the Newtown massacre, John King, CNN and Fox News showed Wednesday how shaky and journalistically confused even the genre's biggest dogs are these days when confronted with a major, ongoing news story.
It doesn't get much worse than it did for CNN Wednesday afternoon when quoting unnamed sources it reported that police had arrested a suspect in the Boston marathon bombings.
Fox News jumped in shortly after CNN's report of an arrest being made and said it had confirmed an arrest as well. Who knows if Fox really did confirm it independently -- or what it considers confirmation, for that matter, since no one was on the record here either.
I won't go through all the details of failure by CNN and Fox Wednesday, because I want to explore one of the larger issues here about a democracy that now gets bad, confusing and sometimes downright incorrect information routinely -- especially in time of high emotion and crisis.
But a couple of things do need to be discussed about Wednesday.
First, King also told viewers Wednesday that law enforcement authorities had identified a suspect in the bombings as a "dark-skinned male," which resulted in a near-instant backlash for using only that racially-charged information. And, again, with unnamed sources.
Also, anchor Wolf Blitzer and CNN's Fran Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to George W. Bush, were on-air with King when he said an arrest had been made -- and Townsend doubled down on King's confirmation.
The channel did correct the mistake within the hour with Townsend saying no arrest had been made and that CNN's announcement of an arrest was based on a "misunderstanding." (Never mind, as Gilda Radner's Emily Litella used to say on "Saturday Night Live.")
And CNN did continue to run script and tell viewers "no arrest has been made" the rest of the afternoon. And King retracted as well. (For the record, the explanation from King and the CNN press department is that he got the bad information from three law enforcement sources whom he considered to be "reliable sources.")
That doesn't, of course, start to excuse it. The bad reporting resulted in such confusion that the FBI had to post a statement Wednesday asking reporters to try and "verify" information before reporting it.
"Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate," the FBI said in a statement on its website. "Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting."
Meanwhile, NBC News was on Twitter saying no arrests were made. I can't praise NBC News enough for having the courage not to cave when CNN, Fox, AP and the Boston Globe were saying some version of an arrest has been made.
NBC News was the TV news outlet Monday that exclusively confirmed and reported that one of those victims killed in the bombings was an 8-year-old child.
And the highest praise is due NPR for keeping its journalistic compass pointed true north amid the reports of an arrest Wednesday. I don't have the space to try and explain the tremendous pressure that builds in a newsroom when credible outlets have new information on a big story that you don't have even if the information has not been properly verified and vetted.
But you might get some sense of it from this memo NPR sent to its member stations at about 2:30 p.m. in the midst of the confusion caused by CNN and Fox Wednesday afternoon:
NPR News is aware of the fast-breaking news surrounding the Boston investigation.
Sources with knowledge of the investigation tell NPR that no arrests have been made at this time.
NPR News has not yet confirmed, but is tracking the widespread reports that video has identified someone who allegedly placed the bomb.
There are also conflicting reports on whether or not they know who the person in the video actually is.
We continue to work on the story and will report on the facts as and when we can confirm information.
You know station managers and news directors were asking NPR where its coverage of the arrests was as social media, the Internet and cable TV were flooded with the bad arrest information that others were reporting as fact.
On Monday, cable news had been far more restrained across the board than it had been in Newtown where almost everyone had the wrong person as the killer for hours on end.
And that was encouraging.
CNN and Fox, for example, attributed its reports of an 8-year-old being killed to NBC News -- they didn't just throw the news up there and attribute to unnamed sources as if it came from original reporting. By and large, proper attribution was given to competitors and the bulk of what was reported turned out to be factually correct.
But Wednesday, CNN and Fox showed how unreliable and incorrigible this troubled genre has become. Reporting something as fact, and then, saying, never mind, not true, "misunderstanding."
I have praised King a lot on this blog and I have called CNN the last best hope for TV news because of its stated commitment to fact-based journalism and vast journalistic infrastructure backed by a business model to support it.
But it doesn't matter how many correspondents, anchors and bureaus you have around the globe if they are producing the kind of coverage CNN did Wednesday in Boston.
I have to admit I am not feeling so good about my last, best hope at the moment.
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