MSNBC runs old riot footage with 'Happening Now' logo

Media critic David Zurawik on a MSNBC report that aired prior to the verdict in the Officer Caesar Goodson trial that showed footage from the unrest in 2015. (Emma Patti Harris/Baltimore Sun video)

Some news operations just can't let go of that riot video from last year after the death of Freddie Gray.

And Thursday morning, MSNBC again went to that well in its coverage from Baltimore of the trial of Officer Caesar Goodson.


In a report that aired just prior to the verdict, correspondent Ron Mott reported on the mood in Baltimore and tried to explain what a not guilty verdict would mean to the remaining cases of officers involved in the arrest and death of Gray.

The entire 1-minute-and-49-second report carried a banner that said "HAPPENING NOW."

While Mott filled one-third of the screen, the other two-thirds were filled with images and information from Gray's death and the various police officers' cases including video of rioting in the wake of Gray's funeral.

The "HAPPENING NOW" banner ran at the bottom of the portion of the screen with the video of riots, thus making it look as if the riots were live.

MSNBC used old riot footage during a report on the Caesar Goodson trial Thursday. And it carried the "HAPPENING NOW" banner that could make some viewers think it was live.
MSNBC used old riot footage during a report on the Caesar Goodson trial Thursday. And it carried the "HAPPENING NOW" banner that could make some viewers think it was live.(Screengrab MSNBC)

In fairness, Mott told viewers near the top of the report: "I just stepped outside the courthouse. Very few demonstrators out there - maybe half a dozen."

And later in the report, in answer to a question from the anchor desk as to the "mood" of Baltimore, he again said, "Obviously there's a lot of interest in the case ... but there are not a lot of people demonstrating."

Since TV journalism is both words and pictures, those seeing and hearing the full report might think MSNBC's sins are less egregious than would those who saw only a screengrab widely circulated on Twitter showing Mott, the images of rioting and the banner "HAPPENING NOW."

T.J. Smith, Baltimore's police spokesman, retweeted that image with the words: "That is absolutely irresponsible looping last years coverage. Shameful."


Without defending MSNBC, I will say that hearing the audio context provided by Mott is necessary for a fair assessment of what the channel did.

It did go seriously wrong by running that riot footage along with a line of questioning from the anchor desk that forced Mott to reference the riots twice. Riot video ran for 33 seconds, which pretty much made it the wallpaper of the last part of the report.

In my opinion, the worst sinners were the producers who ran so much riot footage and then failed to remove the "HAPPENING NOW" banner under it once they saw how it could be misinterpreted by viewers who didn't have the audio -- people in an airport, bar or restaurant where screens are often shown carrying cable news images without sound.

But, of course, this is part of a larger problem I have been writing about for more than a year now: out-of-town news operations running images of conflict and violence even when they are not representative of what is really happening in Baltimore.

MSNBC declined to comment for this article.