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Un-Arrested Development: On Boston Bomber, Media Outlets Walk Back a Big Story, Again

After last summer's SCOTUS screw-up, CNN didn't make the same embarrassing mistake. It—and a few others—made a brand-new embarrassing mistake.

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DON EMMERT / AFP / Getty Images

Onlookers and media outside the US.Federal Courthouse as it is evacuated because of a bomb threat April 17, 2013 in Boston.

Last June, after CNN (and Fox News) blew one of the biggest stories of the year by misreading an opinion and wrongly reporting that the Supreme Court had overturned Obamacare, the network said it was launching an internal investigation into what went wrong and how: “We take mistakes seriously, especially mistakes on such important stories. We are looking into exactly what happened and we will learn from it.”

Sure enough, as CNN was covering the fast-moving investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing, it didn’t make the same embarrassing mistake on an important story. It—and a few others—made a brand-new embarrassing mistake on an important story.
It started just before 2 p.m. ET, when CNN’s John King, citing multiple sources, reported that a suspect had been arrested. And Fox News did. And the AP did. (And time.com posted the wire service’s report.) And The Boston Globe did.

And NBC… didn’t. Pete Williams–who you might remember being the first, with Dan Abrams, to correctly read the Bush v. Gore ruling in 2000–went on a special report with Brian Williams and said that his multiple sources said there had been no arrest. Live on air, he stuck to his guns even as Brian Williams read the numerous competitor reports contradicting him.

It was a standoff. Pete Williams won. Over the next, excruciating hour, the reports of the arrest fell apart, on live TV, in real time. NBC stood its ground; CBS joined it. Behind the scenes, calls were made. And as Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Juliette Kayyem filled time on the street in Boston, their language began to get more tentative: If an arrest had been made. If our sources are correct. “Suspect Arrested” in CNN’s breaking-news chyron silently changed to “Sources: Suspect Arrested.”

Finally, CNN got a report on live air from former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes, who, citing separate sources, told the funereal on-air trio that their breaking report was wrong. “Ok, now,” Cuomo vamped, “We don’t know what’s right or not right at this point…” (Can we get James Earl Jones to say that in the ads? “CNN: We don’t know what’s right or not right at this point!”) And just as smoothly, “Sources: Suspect Arrested” changed–poof!–to “Conflicting Reports.”

Eventually, King came on to debunk his own report: “Anyone who said there is an arrest is getting ahead of themselves,” he said, as though he had no idea who “themselves” might be. At one point, Kayyem floated the theory that CNN had been intentionally misled by law-enforcement authorities as a strategy to catch the bomber.

It was ghastly. It was awkward. I began to wonder if my TV set could be short-circuited by flop sweat.

In fairness to CNN, it was not alone here, just as it wasn’t on SCOTUS. And it gets a disproportionate share of attention when it screws up like this. (Disclosure: CNN, like TIME, is part of Time Warner, though the magazine is planned to separate from Time Warner as part of the Time Inc. spinoff.)

But that’s because it gets a disproportionate share of its reputation from news accuracy. When big news breaks, you turn on CNN, because you believe, or once did, that it would get the news and get it right–not probably right, or right most of the time, or right until it turned out wrong.

Second, anyone in the news business knows that CNN often drives news coverage–so its screw-ups drive coverage too. As a TV executive told the New York Times’ Brian Stelter today, the pressure to match a CNN scoop is “intense.” When CNN’s reporting is bad, suddenly someone’s yelling in newsrooms across the country, asking why the hell they don’t have the same bad story.

The SCOTUS screw-up was worse in one important sense: CNN and Fox had all the relevant information and botched it by rushing. This was not as bad—maybe. If their version of events is right, today’s errant news outlets had sources telling them an arrest was made. Not knowing the sources, we can’t say if they were trustworthy. We don’t know what the sources exactly said. The fact remains: not everyone screwed this story up, and maybe if the others had invested more time and not worried about being first, they wouldn’t have either.

So, OK, mistakes happen in tough stories. But when they happen, a news organization that wants to stay credible owns up to them. It recognizes that—even if someone gets arrested eventually—reporting a huge story and taking it back is not serving viewers. It doesn’t blame the sources, because it knows where the buck stops. Heads don’t have to roll, but someone should at least apologize to the audience.

That’s not just about politeness: it’s survival. It’s telling your viewers that when you report something, it doesn’t come with an asterisk. (*Please check back in half an hour! Because who knows!) It’s the difference between a news organization committed to the facts and one that, deep down, operates on the theory that sometimes, hey, stuff happens. You folks just gotta learn to roll with it!

The latter was the message today, and that may be the worst part of the whole fiasco. CNN gave a statement to media reporter Michael Calderone that it had done the right thing by acknowledging the new information and moving on. And an anonymous TV executive complained to Politico that it while it was “a shame” the biggest news story in the country was botched, it was “equally a shame” that people were snarking at CNN and company on Twitter.

Except it wasn’t just smartass TV critics like me throwing potshots. The FBI itself weighed in with a statement, because it turns out that putting out mistaken information about an active investigation into a murder manhunt is actually not helpful:

Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.

Anyone get the message? Coming out to anchor CNN’s 5 p.m. coverage, Wolf Blitzer gave his deepest, most heartfelt shrug: “That’s what happens in these investigations. You get conflicting information, you go with what you have, presuming it’s accurate. If it’s not, you fix it, you move on.”

Fine, move on. But don’t be surprised if at some point your audience does too.