BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
POLICE SCANNER: Okay, I want this area cordoned off. It’s the crime scene. Let’s get it secure, please.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's impossible to keep up with the news this week, especially in a prerecorded show. As I read this, it’s closing in on Friday evening. At 4 am this morning, I was following On the Media's Twitter stream manned by producer Alex Goldman, who was tweeting the Boston Police Department scanner.
POLICE OFFICER: Come right now. Push those units. Push that A-L-S Unit. Officer down. [PAUSE] Where is that A-L-S units, please!
POLICE OFFICER: They’re working it, they’re working it, they’re trying to get it there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was a movie without pictures, a shootout, a car chase. And we had the newly dead, a campus police officer, a suspect, bombs reportedly strapped to his chest.
POLICE OFFICER: We, we go in through the yards or do they have both of them?
POLICE OFFICER: The last update we have, two – two SDs, one in custody, one down on the ground at gunpoint, not in custody yet. POLICE OFFICER: All right, call Watertown, call Watertown and get a confirmation of how many we have down. Please. I will stay on 2.
POLICE OFFICER: Just realize, Watertown is not answering their phones right now. We’ll try.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was a surreal week, a dread-soaked week, with ricin-tainted letters in Washington, explosions in Texas, a popular gun-control bill going down in flames, a major metropolis in lockdown. And yet, with all that news, it was a bad week for the media, across all platforms. In our never-ending new cycle, breaking news usually reveals what's broken, starting with the urge to tart up real life anguish.
[FOX NEWS MONTAGE CLIP]:
REPORTER: Body parts – I mean, people have been blown apart. They’re dead.
REPORTER: We have multiple people that are –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Fox News’ Sean Hannity’s musical mayhem montage. Some say it was set to a theme from “Dr. Who.”
[SOUNDTRACK UP & UNDER] Now, maybe it’s unfair to use this as an exemplar of this week’s coverage.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Make no mistake - we will get to the bottom of this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After all, Hannity’s isn’t a news show, and the blood-soaked video it used was running everywhere.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We will find out who did this, we’ll find out why they did this.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then there were all those mistakes, inevitable perhaps, in the fog of – news. Early on, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times cited unnamed sources, wrongly claiming more bombs had been found. The New York Post was first among many to wrongly label a Saudi national a potential suspect, and it kept posting pictures of people who weren't the bomber.
The online community reddit tried to find the perp by crowdsourcing photos and came up with a blue-robed guy who turned himself in to prove his innocence. Then they did it again to someone else. Other outlets singled out a brown sweatshirt guy, a running away guy, basically Gawker observed, every brown person wearing a backpack. But the weirdest episode occurred Wednesday, when first CNN and then the AP and others, reported that a male suspect had either been arrested or taken into custody.
WOLF BLITZER: We're going to interrupt Dana to bring John King back. John, you're working your sources, you’re getting more information. Exclusive reporting. What else are you learning?
JOHN KING: Wolf, we have information. One of our sources from our national…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While NBC, CBS and others reported officials denying it. NBC’s Pete Williams:
PETE WILLIAMS: At the end of the day, [LAUGHS] someone is going to be right -
WOMAN: Yeah –
PETE WILLIAMS: - because every news organization is reporting something different. Pick your [LAUGHS] conclusion. Someone’s right out there. I can only tell you what we have now been told by senior government officials.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: CNN, first to report news of the arrest, was so sure, citing several unnamed local and federal law enforcement sources. But the FBI squashed its scoop, leaving nothing but a rank residue in its wake. CNN’s John King:
JOHN KING: Part of this reflects on us, but part of it also reflects on people that you talk to who are reliable sources. And so, when you have people who’ve been reliable sources, if they’re out ahead of themselves we need to go back and circle with them. And clearly, we need to figure this out ourselves. But you – you do have to – there’s clearly something afoot today…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: CNN ran with scissors and fell on the pointy end because they believe their government sources must know and would never lie. And people say reporters are cynical. There was something awfully familiar though about how it played out.
RONALD KESSLER: It’s almost unheard of for FBI investigations to be leaked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s veteran journalist Ronald Kessler, author of The Secrets of the FBI, in 2004, referring to coordinated FBI leaks in the investigation of anthrax suspect Steven Hatfill, who was found innocent.
RONALD KESSLER: The purpose of these leaks is to shake up the suspect and see what he'll do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coordinated FBI and police leaks have led to some of journalism's greatest blunders. They led an eager media to all but crucify the innocent Atlanta bomber suspect, Richard Jewell in 1996 and the innocent suspected spy Wen Ho Lee in 1999. But in the Boston bombing case, it sure didn’t look coordinated. Sometimes law enforcement authorities really just don't know. When they did know, they told us, showed us, even enlisted us.
RICHARD DESLAURIERS: For more than 100 years, the FBI has relied upon the public to be its eyes and ears. With the media's help, in an instant, these images will be delivered directly into the hands of millions around the world. Somebody out there knows these individuals, as friends, neighbors, coworkers or family members of the suspects. Though it may be difficult, the nation is counting on those with information to come forward and provide it to us.