Poor John King.
Jon Stewart teed off on CNN generally and King personally on “The Daily Show” on Wednesday night. Stewart’s targets couldn’t have deserved it more. They were caught that afternoon reporting – from King’s “exclusive” sources, said his colleague Wolf Blitzer – that a suspect had been caught in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings.
“A dark-skinned male,” King told the world rather nonspecifically from his “exclusive” sources – which, of course, gave Stewart abundant ammunition for a public fusillade at whatever shred of dignity King might have hoped he still had.
There are no worse ways to be “caught” in journalism. What so many others knew at the time was that the apprehension of a suspect King reported as fact could always turn out to be premature. He’d been caught believing the wrong source and not confirming it.
The precise technical term for what he said at that precise moment was “untrue.”
Which is why, despite everything, I may be one of the few people in America who have more than a little sympathy for King. The reason I do is that he is not exactly on a career roll. His regular nightly TV show was canceled. The CNN reporter – who is separated from CNN anchor Dana Bash – is now in a position, no doubt, of having to prove himself in a new CNN environment where Jeff Zucker is the new überboss. Zucker is the former NBC executive famous for guiding the Katie Couric-Matt Lauer “Today Show” and infamous for engineering the fabled late-night calamity that began with promising Conan O’Brien the “Tonight Show” chair already occupied by ratings leader Jay Leno.
What I can’t forget is how virtuosic John King was on the last presidential election night in November. Armed with a touch-screen map that was clearer than everyone else’s and what seemed to be inexhaustible information on every election precinct in America, he was close to jaw-dropping (in the hyperbolic modern cliche) on election night.
And now here he is mere months later as the living symbol of journalistic ignominy for a story about a horrifying event that has, in many ways, turned into a kind of journalistic waterloo for second-by-second “reporting.”
So many of the new media, new institutions and new technologies that routinely deliver news 24/7 have been caught in the act of blowing it – reporting phantom suspects in custody, and inflating fatality numbers, as the New York Post did.
King, who used to work for the Associated Press, and CNN weren’t alone in reporting a suspect arrest in the bombings. Fox News briefly followed suit, then quickly took it back. The AP fired off a 1:42 p.m. tweet on Twitter about “a suspect to be brought to the court” and then, of course, had to un-tweet it. (CBS and NBC, to their credit, never bit on the story. They never succumbed to the hysteria.)
Every journalistic professional in America has always known that the process of news gathering is chaotic indeed, with stops and starts and detours and misdirections and spurts of misinformation and error sometimes beclouding everything. We have to assume Boston police and resident FBI investigators to be less experienced dealing with media on major traumas than police and feds elsewhere (New York, to be sure).
Great sources sometimes get it very wrong. Previously weak sources prove to be the Rock of Gibraltar.
It’s a sausage factory where it is indeed sometimes not recommended that nonprofessionals observe every second of the sausage-making process.
But that was in the old days – the days of concentrated journalistic authority with organizations and reporters competing to nail down what actually happened during moments of national trauma.
All bets – and I do mean all – are off in the modern era of 24/7 cable news babble and Facebook and Twitter mixed into the process which seem to transform competition into a second-by-second battle for primacy.
The technical term for this at the moment, it seems to me, is “insanity.” Another extremely useful expression that suggests itself is a two-syllable word that starts with “bull.”
I have had trouble with news media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings since the opening day. Let me hasten to admit here that I’m not writing this as a spot news reporter with sources both inside and outside but rather as a longtime watcher and analyst of what everyone else in America can watch and read.
As I watcher, I have these basic questions during moments of extreme national news trauma:
1) What exactly happened?
2) How many were affected? What were the casualties, in as much detail as possible?
3) Where did it happen?
4) How did it happen?
5) When did it happen?
6) Why did it happen?
7) Who was responsible?
8) How does the event affect the future lives of everyone involved and the rest of us, too?
9) How can authorities lessen the chances of it ever happening again?
On such a story, all information is indeed subject to momentary change. But certain things about it remain stable.
What happened in Boston was obvious from the start. And caught on camera again and again. The New York Post may have reported 12 deaths when there were only three, but it was not a widespread media error.
Where it happened, so help me, has remained a problem from the first minutes. We know that the two explosions took place at the marathon finish line less than 100 yards away from each other.
But where? WHERE?
Maybe I’m too used to watching TV’s forensic mysteries. Maybe my memory of the traumatic assassination of John F. Kennedy remains too vivid. (There were maps everywhere showing the parade route and Dealey Plaza the very next day). If so, I apologize profusely to all investigative agencies and hardworking journalists covering the tragedies and horrors at the Boston Marathon.
But I immediately wanted to know where the bombs were placed – on the sidewalk? Inside the buildings? What were the buildings at the explosion sites? Businesses, nightclubs, book depositories?
We were quickly told by the FBI that at least one of the bombs seemed to have been made from a common cooking unit – a pressure cooker. But the precise placement of them – or even general placement – was kept mysterious.
I know the answers to the rest of my questions will be revealed in due time while media battle each other reporting details. The best will get it right and the gullible and insecure will battle to get it first.
Of all the online coverage, a colleague was able to find only one place giving us a sense of the geography of the explosions – the Boston Public Library across the street from the first, the office building above its sidewalk, the Starbucks mere feet away from the second blast.
It seems to me that elementary question I had should have been answered almost everywhere, not just in a New York Times schematic our editor found. Except for Jon Stewart, this has not been American media’s finest hour.
With the viral growth of American media – especially cable TV news and social websites – America’s information storm has made everyone a “media critic.” What becomes obvious with every truly major story is that the job is infinitely more difficult than is generally assumed.
It seems now the job of “media critic” in America has been virtually wiped out by the unsparing supremacy of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and, to a lesser extent, his time-slot partner Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report.” Both, to many, are as close to reliable and unimpeachable as anything we have. And Stewart, God help us all, is going off to direct a film soon.
We’re going to be in a little bit of trouble when that happens, it seems to me.