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CNN Fail: Imaginary “Dark Males,” “Accents,” and “Arrests” Haunt Reporters


Between about 1:00 pm and 2:40 pm ET on Wednesday, April 17, the CNN news team was at the worst I’ve ever seen them. The afternoon began well, with the exciting revelation that the FBI now had recovered video of a suspect from a security camera at Lord & Taylor Department Store. But things went all downhill from there

John King reported that his source told him that the individual in the video was a dark-skinned male: “I was told they have a breakthrough in the identification of the suspect, and I’m told — and I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things — I was told by one of these sources who’s a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words, I’m going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people who will take offense even in saying that. I’m making a personal judgment — forgive me — and I think it’s the right judgment not to try to inflame tensions.”

Then Wolf Blitzer, refusing to take King’s hint that he didn’t want to say the words “Arab” or “Muslim,” asked if the person on the videotape could be heard speaking with an accent.

That was the low point. They were hinting around about Arabness or Muslimness, using skin color and accent as euphemisms. (Never mind that these are actually inappropriate markers for either group of Americans). King seems to have been told more of that kind of thing by his Boston PD source but, in his one piece of wise caution for the day, declined to retail further racist rumors. Blitzer can’t possibly be so naive about surveillance cameras as to think that they have audio. The question was a loaded one.

The moral tone could not have gotten any worse, but the journalistic one surprised us all by taking a nosedive. John King announced that a source in law enforcement had informed him that the authorities had made an arrest. This allegation was untrue, and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show raked King over the coals for being so eager for an exclusive scoop that he rushed to camera with a single, anonymous, uncorroborated source. In his defense, he later said that the source, in the Boston police department, had been reliable before, so he had a track record with the person. But clearly King should have checked with other sources before going on camera with that information. Dependence on a single highly placed source and willingness to grant the source anonymity are both banes of contemporary journalism.

Worse, it may have been a misunderstanding. CNN said the Boston PD source had said, “We got him!” Presumably that meant they had found a person on videotape who looked like the perpetrator. Did King simply misunderstand the exclamation? Did he not take the time to ask, “What do you mean by that?”

What made the afternoon truly horrible was that none of the substance reported or speculated on was known to be true by the FBI. The Bureau issued a denial that they had anyone in custody, or even had made a positive identification of the person in the video, about an hour after King’s breathless pronouncement.

CBS News in Boston reported that no suspect was in custody. Then its Bob Orr dropped the bombshell on Twitter:

JUST IN: Man sought as possible suspect is WHITE MALE, wearing white baseball cap on backwards, gray hoodie and black jacket.

— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 17, 2013

The guy, he said in caps, was a WHITE MALE. Orr did not say if he spoke with an accent.

Almost nothing the experienced CNN television reporters said was true. At 2 pm you would have thought that a dark-skinned male, maybe a foreign one, was sitting handcuffed in a police car, the smell of bomb-making chemicals on his hoodie.

By the time we went to bed, we knew nothing again. Orr’s report on the appearance of the alleged perpetrator may or may not be true, itself.

What went wrong?

The technical problems derived from the capitalist model of news broadcasting. In a competition for advertising dollars, the scoop is not just the supreme public service or a source of prestige, it is big, big bucks. It is no secret that CNN’s ratings have been spiraling down. Hence the drive for the scoop that cuts corners, that accepts imperfect information from a single source not checked against others. The problems derived also in part from the 24-hour cable news format for dealing with big stories, which is to make them the only story for hours on end, requiring anchors and reporters to fill air time with speculation. It isn’t news reporting, it is chit chat, and derives from the entertainment model of news forced on the reporters by the networks’ search for advertising dollars. They are competing for eyeballs not because they have an important piece of breaking news to share but because each eyeball equals in increase in advertising rates. The goal is to keep people watching. They are petrified that if they switch to covering some other story than the one they have decided is on everyone’s mind, the audience will switch to a competing network. They therefore have to stay on the one story even when there are no developments, and are forced to emulate a talk show, engaging in a stream of consciousness discourse with one another, trying to keep the audience entertained with random thoughts expressed by good-looking people on weighty matters.

Streams of consciousness throw up streams of the unconscious, and sometimes darker thoughts and unworthy ideas bubble to the surface. The ethical problems enter there, superseding the technical ones. The contemporary anxiety around Arabness and Muslimness, despite the rarity of violence in the US from those quarters (American Muslims are disproportionately well-educated, well off, and Establishment) compared to terrorist actions of white supremacists, expresses America’s long national terror of the immigrant. That consideration is the significance of the marker of the accent in Blitzer’s question. (Again, never mind that by now most American Muslims are not immigrants). The underlying question is nevertheless the immigrant– that immigrant so necessary in a barracuda capitalist society for cheap labor but that immigrant so frightening for not yet being socialized to “American” values. That America has adopted fortress Israel as its frontier state, bestowing on it a role once played by Arizona and then by the Philippines, of being the furthest extension of white dynamism and virtue into a chaotic and barbaric brown world, reinforces the themes of the fear of the Arab and the Muslim, the inconvenient populations who decline to acquiesce in white assertion of superiority and dominance, the barbarians who resist despite their obvious inferiority. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), even manages to mix together in his fevered mind the supposed Latino threat with the supposed Muslim one.

Ironically, 100 years ago it would have been the Irish and the Jews, the Italians and Poles, to whom American racial anxieties attached, who would have been viewed as suspicious or dangerous for not being free market Protestants. (E.g. Sacco and Vanzetti.) The big wave of immigration that began around 1880 and was stopped by law in 1924 resembles that of our own day.

We’ve been here before. In Yogi Berra’s phrase, it is deja vu all over again. In response to a bombing in the West that killed former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg in 1905, high officials of the Western Federation of Miners were arrested and tried for complicity (the “Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone Case”). The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on May 20, 1907 on a sympathy march staged to support the accused union leaders. The article was entitled “Socialist Parade under Red Flags” (the chief of police had unsuccessfully tried to ban the red flags). Those marching, the report sniffed, included “One Polish revolutionary society, which had several hundred marchers in line, sang the “Warsha Vyanska,” or “Song of Revolution,” as it passed along the route. The Poles carried a banner which read: “I’m an undeniable citizen but Teddy Roosevelt wants my vote.” The newspaper reassured the North Shore elite that an attack on the police had been forestalled.

A bombing, a restless oppressed group; uppity immigrants with radical foreign ideas and accents who use strange phrases; their assertions of Americanness mingled with a challenge to the WASP status quo– the keyword terrain of the 1907 article is identical to our own desultory news day in 2013.

It is, however, over 100 years later, and we ought to have made some progress. 

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