It’s been nagging at me for five days now. I try to reconcile the situation, but I can’t. I value and cherish our first amendment rights, but there are limits and responsibilities.
At the time of the bombings in Boston, I was in the city working with reporters, anchors, and management at two properties of NBC Universal’s Sports Group, including New England Cable News, the largest regional cable news network in the U.S. Watching the story unfold, and witnessing the reaction of the citizens of the Boston area, was an exercising in examining fear, anxiety and undaunted courage.
A few days later, I returned to Philadelphia.
What happened at that point was an episode that was hardly courageous, and extremely unwise. When CNN, and others reported that there was a suspect in custody on Thursday of last week, the people of New England were relieved. The Associated Press wire service and Fox News followed with the same story. The CNN reporter John King reported the story and Wolf Blitzer broadcast it with energy and abandon.
The story was wrong.
A lot of people have criticized the cable networks in different ways, but really got to the point which is all about public safety. While NBC, ABC, and CBS didn’t fall for the bait, CNN continued its report, until it was denied by the local and federal law.
CNN backtracked, and never really offered contrition.
What’s the real point of all of this? For hours, the people of New England were led to believe there was a suspect. And therein lies the danger of taking reporting risks in the middle of a civil emergency. Was it worth it? Did the CNN report lead people to let down their guard, and believe the crisis was over?
Obviously, John King’s sources were not correct, nor was the casual backing off by the network on a story fraught with dangers, especially the danger of thinking the crisis might have been over.
I’ve said for years that information is dangerous business. Nowhere is it more dangerous than during a terrorist attack, or any emergency where good, solid information is so important to the public’s well being.
And then I remember the words of Blitzer during the Newtown massacre, when he kept using saying, “We hear.” “We hear”. “We hear that the death toll is…
We hear that…” How many people did he scare on that nightmarish day?
In the news business, we don’t casually “hear” in the middle of a clear and present danger. In the news business, we report, not based on hearsay, but on facts.
NBC, CBS and ABC obviously preferred to be second on the story and correct than first and wrong.
That is what credibility is all about. Being first, with bad information, can be deadly.
CNN should investigate how sources are used and whether John King shared his sources with his bosses.
We can be polished, charismatic and smooth. But our credibility is based not only on the truth, but our compassion for the people we serve.