Saturday, September 12, 2009

Oops!

Yesterday we got a wonderful example of truthiness by the media. CNN, after a staffer heard something weird on a scanner set on the Coast Guard, announced that a Coast Guard ship had fired on a boat on the Potomac River near the Pentagon. Then all hell broke loose, "journalistically" speaking. Unfortunately for CNN, and the other media outlets which ran with the story, there really was no story. What had happened was a routine Coast Guard training exercise, one that takes place four times a week.

Dana Milbank, columnist for the Washington Post, described the media feeding frenzy quite nicely:

"We have seen at least one boat come up the Potomac and challenge the Coast Guard," reported CNN's Jeanne Meserve, as the network showed a gloomy, long-range image of the river with the caption "Coast Guard fires on boat on Potomac River." The Coast Guard, Meserve said, "sent a transmission saying they expended 10 rounds."

Gunfire on the Potomac! Near the Pentagon! On 9/11! Federal Aviation Administration officials, watching the scene on CNN, ordered a ground stop at nearby Reagan National Airport. About 10 police cars sped to the scene, between the Memorial and 14th Street bridges. Officials at Coast Guard headquarters didn't seem to know what was going on.

The media-industrial complex began to turn its gears. Seven minutes after the CNN report, the Reuters news service issued a bulletin: "Coast Guard Fired on Suspicious Boat on Potomac River in Central Washington, DC.--CNN."

Not to be outdone, CNN arch-nemesis Fox News interrupted its broadcast with the "breaking news" that a "U.S. Coast Guard ship of some type fired on what is considered a suspicious boat in the Potomac River." By that time, CNN had Bush administration homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend on air, talking about how "it is very unusual."


I'm a little surprised that reporters are still listening to police scanners to dig up news. I'm even more surprised that a national cable news outlet, one with plenty of staff and plenty of sophisticated technology, is doing so and then simply airing the story without having a complete set of facts. While the Coast Guard wasn't particularly helpful (probably not understanding the CNN questions because the training exercise was so routine), surely CNN has other sources it could have checked with. And Reuters and Fox apparently did no other checking, leading to Mr. Milbank's conclusion about the whole matter:

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist strikes, the Coast Guard incident served as an unwelcome reminder of two facts of life in the capital: Homeland security authorities continue to bear an occasional, unnerving likeness to Keystone Kops, and the cable-news-driven, minute-by-minute news cycle has a unique ability to sow mass confusion and misinformation. [Emphasis added]

Howard Kurtz and Paul Duggan, also of the Washington Post, examined the episode as well. In that column, Kurtz (who has a gig with CNN as a media critic) and Duggan cited responses from two outlets about their very different handling of the incident.

Courtney Dolan, a spokeswoman for Thomson Reuters, said the wire service had no regrets about moving bulletins based on CNN's reports: "We have an obligation to our clients to publish information that could move financial markets, and this story certainly had the potential to do that."

MSNBC, which had been airing a tape of the 2001 attacks, broke in to report that the Potomac incident had been a training exercise. Spokesman Jeremy Gaines said the network "took a few minutes to gather the facts before going to air."
[Emphasis added]

I'm impressed that the Reuters spokesperson was so candid in her assessment of her company's mission, impressed and appalled.

I'm even more impressed (and not at all appalled) that MSNBC in this instance felt that getting the story right was more important than getting the story first, a lesson that CNN has apparently yet to learn.

But I'm also depressed that what Kurtz and Duggan call "the media echo chamber" operates so efficiently.

Truthiness: it's what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

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