Newtown teaches us, once again, to discount early reports
“It’s inevitable that some first reports will be wrong,” Dan Rather warned viewers on Sept. 11, 2001, as he and his colleagues at CBS covered terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in real time.
Before the day was over, CBS had confirmed the Rather maxim by launching several very wrong reports into the ether. Rather and colleagues reported that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department in Washington; that a United Airlines flight had “crashed into the vicinity of or at Camp David”; and that the FBI had arrested two people in a truck with explosives near New York’s George Washington Bridge. “Enough explosives were in the truck to do great damage to the George Washington Bridge,” Rather would go on to say. It wasn’t just CBS muffing the story. NBC News repeated the George Washington Bridge story (before taking it back), and NPR and ABC News reported the nonexistent State Department bomb, with ABC News citing senior law enforcement officials and the Associated Press.
None of these doozies turned out to be true, of course, making a sage of sorts out of Rather. If only we had had him on the air to warn us last Friday, as the networks, newswires and newspapers reported on the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre. Among the firstest and the wrongest on the story was CNN. At 11:17 a.m. on Friday, @CNN tweeted, “CNN’s @SusanCandiotti reports the suspect is Ryan Lanza and is in his 20s,” and Candiotti repeated the finding on air shortly after 2 p.m. with a caveat that the information came from a source and that it had “not been confirmed by the state police.”
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer reprised the report, saying, “Just to recap. The shooter in this case, the suspected gunman, identified now as Ryan Lanza. In his 20s. That according to a law enforcement source who told that to CNN. The shooter died at the scene.” The network continued to identify Ryan Lanza as the suspect through its 2:30 p.m. broadcast, its 3 p.m. broadcast, during which Blitzer added, “Ryan Lanza’s mother, a teacher at this elementary school, was shot and killed herself.” Within minutes, Blitzer was amending his report: “We’re also told that the mother of Ryan Lanza, Nancy Lanza, was shot and killed in this classroom, as well as earlier the brother of Ryan Lanza in a residential area of Hoboken, New Jersey.”
Of course, thanks to the cushion of time and more reporting, we now know that CNN got many of the fundamentals of the story wrong, and didn’t really start to straighten them out until its 6 p.m. broadcast. CNN wasn’t the only news organization to err ‑ the Associated Press, the New York Times and other outlets performed poorly in the early hours. NBC News found itself doubly damned, working very hard to confirm Ryan Lanza as the suspect, and after all that effort was among the very last to name him.
Finally, as the “inevitably wrong” first reports were knocked down, the identity of the Newtown shooter was revealed as Ryan Lanza’s younger brother, Adam. And after many contradictory reports, it was determined that the mother, Nancy Lanza, was not a teacher at the school, and that she was not killed in a classroom but in her home.
We could have also used Rather’s advice in December 2008, when there were almost as many unique versions of the Mumbai, India, massacre for readers to consume as there were news outlets reporting the attack. Or when Fox News Channel and CNN blew the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act. Or during Watergate, when as David Greenberg’s book Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image tells us, the press committed grievous errors while chasing the story. Or to get all historical on you, back in 1935 when the Associated Press mistakenly sent a flash dispatch to its subscribers that Bruno Hauptmann had been found guilty and had been sentenced to life for killing the Lindbergh baby ‑ when, in fact, he had been found guilty and given a death sentence. Two radio networks and some newspapers went with the flawed story. (The Washington Post printed, but receiving the correction in time, did not distribute the false verdict, according to Eugene Meyer‘s biographer.)
The cobwebs gathering on AP’s Hauptmann miscue and on other historical reporting disasters help exonerate the Internet-fueled, cable-news-supercharged, 24/7 news cycle of charges that it is the cause of faulty reporting. Mistakes have always been made by the press because there are so many ways to get a story wrong and so few to get it right. As the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple notes, the source of much of the bad Newtown information the press retailed to the public was the police. Anyone who has ever covered crime will tell you that the police can be just as confused in the early going at a crime scene as anybody. Their information is provisional, and it should be treated as extra-provisional if police don’t want to be named individually or identified by the police force they work for. For that reason, when a reporter attributes his crime scene information to a “source,” it might be true. Or, as we’ve seen in the Newtown massacre, it might not be true.
The more cops on a crime scene, the more confusing things can get, and lord knows that every law enforcement officer with a badge within driving distance of Newtown made an instant effort to work on this crime. I doubt that the local police were accustomed to working with such a ferocious and demanding press horde within hours of a big crime. Even when police are experienced in dealing with the press, there’s a way for misinformation to spread. When I surveyed the international coverage of the Mumbai killings in 2008, I was astonished by the variety of the accounts until I read a Times of London article that explained that as many as 15 Indian officials sat in on the interrogation of the surviving attacker. Many of them leaked to the press their personal interpretations of the attacker’s responses to police questions, and with no authoritative source to draw on, the attacker’s stories mutated in the reporting.
After the last criticism of the press corps is filed, and reporters and editors everywhere cease their self-recriminations, remember that there is no law that you have to believe anything you read in newspapers or on the Web or watch on TV. That’s always true, but it’s especially true when it’s breaking news that the press is delivering. Don’t expect too much. You won’t be disappointed.
A hat-tip to Jim Naureckas of FAIR, who wrote the definitive piece on Rather’s 9/11 reporting back in 2001, which helped me find the CBS News accounts on Nexis. Tip your hat to me with email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. I wear a hat on my Twitter feed and tip it to you daily. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: Members of the media interview residents of the neighborhood near the secondary crime scene following a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, December 14, 2012. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin