I'd like to start off today's article with an excerpt from a New York Times story, to make a point. Here is what ran in the Times, with a few sentences left out.
Speaking of early reports, the cameras had been at the scene for scarcely an hour before former Representative Dave McCurdy was on CBS talking about "very clear evidence" of the involvement of "fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups." ... But then came a CNN scoop of suspects of Middle Eastern appearance being pursued. Then came a CNN denial. But then came a report that two or three such men were being sought. The Treasury and Justice Departments were troubled enough by CNN's apparent choice of speed over checking that they warned Washington reporters against relying on the network for news about suspects or about other explosive devices, another changeable subject.
It sounds maddeningly familiar to stories being covered today, doesn't it? But this article actually ran eighteen years ago, on April 20, 1995. Here is the full excerpt (I retrieved this from a database behind a paywall, sorry for the lack of a link):
It was not until about 2 P.M., Eastern time, that the Mayor of Oklahoma City, Ron Norick, told reporters that the blast had indeed been caused by a car bomb. But the who and why of what Tom Brokaw of NBC News called "this evil act" remained obscure. Peter Jennings of ABC News cautioned more than once that on these occasions early reports tended to be wrong.
Speaking of early reports, the cameras had been at the scene for scarcely an hour before former Representative Dave McCurdy was on CBS talking about "very clear evidence" of the involvement of "fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups." He reminded viewers that not so long ago a PBS documentary, "Jihad in America," showed Islamic militants meeting in Oklahoma City.
Two hours later on CNN, Senator James M. Inhofe, a Republican who noted that he had beaten Mr. McCurdy for the Senate seat last year, called Mr. McCurdy's remarks a disservice. But then came a CNN scoop of suspects of Middle Eastern appearance being pursued. Then came a CNN denial. But then came a report that two or three such men were being sought.
The Treasury and Justice Departments were troubled enough by CNN's apparent choice of speed over checking that they warned Washington reporters against relying on the network for news about suspects or about other explosive devices, another changeable subject.
Drawing parallels with the past is always risky business, especially since we don't yet know who caused the Boston Marathon bombing. It may turn out to be an Islamic terrorist. Then again, it may not. There are other major differences between 1995 and now, as well. Timothy McVeigh was actually captured within two days of the bombing. Although the news cycle was indeed up to 24/7 speed back in 1995 (in case you find this hard to believe, consider the other big story of that year: the O. J. Simpson trial), the business universe of constant and neverending news was smaller back then (newspapers didn't have blogs or websites, so they only had to worry about one deadline a day, for instance).
But even with a slightly-less-frenzied news cycle back then, and even though the entire window for rampant speculation and rumor-mongering was smaller (it's already been two days since the Boston bombing, and nobody's in custody yet), the storylines had still leapt way ahead of the facts, even back in 1995.
"It couldn't be a home-grown group or a lone wolf," the media reasoned, "since it was too sophisticated for that to possibly be true." At the time, it certainly seemed a reasonable assumption. Even the Attorney General, after all, was dropping hints that it might be an act of international terrorism. It was reported that a car chase was happening in Texas with two "Middle Eastern" men in a truck fleeing for the border. This, obviously, was wrong. But it didn't stop CNN from airing their own rumors, in the quest to be the first with the breaking news.
This frenzy of speculation died quickly, after the news (the real news) broke that a very suspicious individual was in custody -- which was quickly followed up with the news that he had recently rented exactly the same kind of truck that was used in the attack.
Now, I know I've been harping on this note all week, but it is not only pointless but can actually be counter-productive to wildly speculate on who is responsible for the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. Domestic, foreign, religious, secular, or just purely insane; we really have no idea why this attack happened right now. The American news media is not known for its patience, and they have to talk about something -- I do understand that. They hate (just as the rest of us do) simply admitting "we don't know right now."
But that is where we currently are. We all should take a step back and let the professional investigators do their jobs without making their work harder by getting out too far in front of the actual, confirmed facts. Facts confirmed on the air, by official spokespeople. Not what "our anonymous source inside the police told us." We've all been conditioned to expect brilliant lab work and video surveillance miracles from hipper-than-thou agents sitting at a computer screen, trading quips with their colleagues -- and before the hour's up, including commercial breaks. In real life, sometimes, it takes a lot longer than that. Remember, it took seventeen years to find Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber.
Sure, it's a lot more fun to theorize while we're all waiting for the investigation to proceed. And somebody's going to turn out to be right. One convoluted theory or another will likely allow some lucky prognosticator to claim he "had it right all along" later on. I wish them well on their future book tour, I really do.
But for the one guy who turns out to be right, there's going to be a whole lot of people with egg on their face. And, as we've already seen, this won't include just the folks blithely weaving theories, but it will also (as always) include a lot of professional journalists as well. Just in the past two days, try counting all the things which were breathlessly reported as "the truth" which have turned out to be wrong. The longer the search takes, the longer this list is going to grow. CNN is currently and prominently on top of that list, but they're certainly not alone. Pretty much every news organization ran with the "there are multiple other devices, one of which has been dismantled and will provide important clues to the bomb-maker" story. Which, as Governor Patrick informed us all, was simply not true in the slightest. It bore no relation to the truth whatsoever. And, again, this is but one example out of many.
I leave you with the last sentence of the Times story I excerpted earlier:
CNN, taking advantage of a break in the O. J. Simpson trial, stayed with the story, replaying the early footage, updating the figures on the dead and the injured and bringing in experts and politicians who were not deterred by how little they knew about the explosion.
Some things never change, do they?
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant