The great thing about the modern world of quasi-legal online video is that when a 24-hour news network screws up, it’s instantly available even to the people who (strange as it may seem) aren’t watching the network all day. Today CNN announced that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston bombing, and had to walk this back within an hour and a half. And an hour later, someone had already put together a video timeline of CNN’s debacle, from “an arrest has been made” at 1:45 to “no arrest has been made” at 2:42.
CNN wasn’t the only organization to make this mistake of confusing “significant progress” in the case with the actual existence of an arrest, though it appeared to be the first. Michael Calderone, in his piece on how the mistake came to be made, lists some other organizations. So this may be picking on CNN, as opposed to the Associated Press or Fox News or other teams. But CNN will become today’s star mistake-maker, both for scooping other teams on the mistake, and for the controversy over John King’s description of the suspect-who-wasn’t-a-suspect. Also, as Alex Berenson notes, some blame probably attaches to the people who are doing the leaking.
Still, these mistakes are harder on 24-hour news channels like CNN and Fox than they are on newspapers or even wire services. With a newspaper, a mistake still isn’t quite “official” until it appears in the print edition, even as the differences between online and print continue to erode. Similarly, networks have their evening news reports as the official spots where they absolutely are expected to get something right (not that they always do). On a 24-hour news channel, every moment is part of the “official” news programming. They used to be protected a bit by the fact that once they said something, it would disappear and be forgotten unless it was particularly egregious, but today, more people have access to the video of the mistakes, and they won’t be superseded by the evening report the way the print edition still – but maybe not for long – supersedes the online version.
This is one of those mistakes we could all see coming, in a way. Once the networks were running around trying to be the first one to announce that an arrest had been made (and do it before the government announces it; once information is official, it is available to everyone and therefore can’t be a scoop), it was inevitable that things were going to go wrong. We see it every time there’s a rush to beat the other networks by a few seconds; remember the ones who reported, based on a quick mis-reading of a Supreme Court decision, that Obamacare had been struck down? And at least that was based on real, officially-available information. This is a situation where very little information has been released to the public (if it such information even exists yet) so the sources are likely to be unreliable and vague. If they had reliable sources willing to say that an arrest had been made, those sources would be releasing this information to everyone, not leaking it early.
In a way, watching CNN and other networks try to get early information on the culprit is like a ghastly parody of the adversarial relationship that the press and the government are supposed to have. Everyone knows that part of the job of the press is to report what the government isn’t telling us, or at least question the official reports. Here we have a case where networks are sort of trying to do that. Except there’s no clear advantage or good purpose to this kind of scooping. If they just wait for the government press conferences and official announcements, they will eventually have a suspect, and then they can add to the official story (or question it, if questions exist) without fear that they’re going to be creating panic or confusion, or creating a Richard Jewell situation where everyone winds up thinking they know who did it.
So there are many, many cases where government briefings and official announcements deserve to be pre-empted. But this probably isn’t one of them. If CNN had been right and there had been an arrest made, it would have helped no one to know this before the official word came out. What we saw this afternoon was an example of the famous habit of trying to get a scoop simply for the sake of having it first. That’s a fun game in some cases – but not when the situation is anything but fun and games.
The widespread mockery of 24-hour news, and the networks’ obvious frustration at having nothing to say until some real information is released, also prompted this rather strange email from “a television industry executive” to Dylan Byers at Politico. The unnamed executive laments that Twitter and blogs are being too snarky: “While it’s a shame that credible ‘old media’ organizations can blow something as big as this, it’s equally a shame that the twitterverse, blogosphere, etc, feels the need to dance on their graves.”
Apart from his strange implication that blowing a story and making snarky jokes are “equally a shame,” I think the email demonstrates the worrying obsession TV news people have with social media. Most people still do not use, or read, Twitter and blogs. And people were making fun of CNN long before Twitter or blogs existed. All that’s changed is that executives like him can and do read the snark, and it gets under their skin. The problem here is not that people are making jokes, it’s that there’s something to make jokes about. And CNN, which still has the resources and skills to do useful work for a bigger audience than any blog can command, is instead reduced to being the day’s comic relief.