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:

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.

34 Responses

  1. If he exists, I’m sure he speaks with an accent. Probably some kind of American accent, possibly even from New England.

  2. Sounds like CNN is intent on not just wounding itself but a self-serving removal of the whole foot below the shin. After the reporting of the First Iraqi Fiasco, during which it had a monopoly on ALL news emanating from the area, it has declined with the numbers of others who have gotten into the cable news game. That said, CNN still deserves some credit for having been (among) the first to provide constant news, without which there might not have been any competition or the emerging variety of sources from which information can be gotten.
    Trying to reclaim ground and glory has its pitfalls but basic, honest, and factual reportage has to be the foundation upon which anyone’s reputation must be build. With the increased competition, not only among the networks but throughout the ranks of reporters, the desire to be ‘first’ among the groups has always been desirable for newshounds, even prior to the advent of the broadcast media. CNN, without its status as the lone ‘star’ network, must shove and jostle with the others at the information trough in order to get its share, this time the “lyin’ share.” But: it was NOT alone.
    No longer can it lay claim to that with which the ‘Outer Limits’ television show once began its programme, in part, “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission.” And it continued … but unlike the television show, CNN (and its emulators and counterpartners) have never relinquished control at any point. *
    An interesting diagram showing all the participants in the whole news ‘fiasco,’ entitled “Give It Arrest,” was provided by Business Insider at the following linque:
    link to businessinsider.com

    * link to en.wikipedia.org

  3. You are spot-on in your description of the abysmal performance of the CNN news team, Professor Cole. It reached such a low level that, were I in charge and cared about objective news coverage without jumping to conclusions, I would consider it a firing offense.

  4. I don’t see CNN improving when Jeff Zucker takes control of CNN. While at NBC, Zucker, responding to the lack of reporters on the ground covering the neocon inspired invasion of Iraq, responded, “It’s very costly to have reporters and cameramen in Iraq.” Zucker then went on to lose hundreds of millions of dollars for NBC covering the Olympics.Zucker and Blitzer…two Likud party favorites.

    During this time of rampant speculation about who set off the bombs in Boston, Glenn Greenwald had comments about the second explosion in Boston, which some have said was designed to kill first responders running towards the blast. Greenwald reminded us that this horrendous technique is actually employed by US drone operators. Shortly after a drone missile is fired into a home or place of business, the drone circles the blast and then fires a second missile as responders show up to dig out the wounded. Of course this is not murder because first…we are doing it and secondly…we are fighting a War on Terror. Oh what Joseph Heller could make of our excuses to kill innocent civilians.

    If you wanted to join Blitzer in the wild speculation game you could make a flimsy speculative case the bombs were planted by an ex-military soldier who learned his tactics in the US army.

    • First of all, a second bomb going off seconds after the first one is not designed to kill first responders.

      Second, there isn’t actually any evidence that the double-tap drone strikes are aimed at killing generic “first responders,” or murdering civilians, or whatever dramatic language you decide gives you a thrill. Seeing who shows up after a strike, and firing at them if you identify them as legitimate targets, is quite a bit different from dropping a bomb to kill whomever shows up, like the Provo IRA used to do.

      • Re double-taps — seems your assertion might be truthy, in a very narrow sense, since the qualification “GENERIC first responders” (whatever that was intended to mean) might arguably have some tenuous taxonomic validity. On the other hand, link to businessinsider.com The CIA technique seems to have been to wait a little longer than “seconds” for the other humans in the area to gather, in the Sneaky Petes’ cynical understanding of the kindly impulses to help as so brightly seen in the Boston videos, which, gee willikers, seem to be somewhat universally human. Check the link for other reasons for multiple launches at a single “target,” having to do with weapon accuracy and reliability — two booms needed to get a good “hit.” Hey, it’s good for the economy! Another obviously pre-impeached “other” source: link to kabulpress.org Lots more of the same. Looks like lots of evidence of random or stupid or just awful/intentional mean killing of “civilians” by drone strike and other tactics, including the lengthy discussions and apologia that appeared in this very netspace.

        And did I read about some report indicating that Exceptional Americans actually DO do real TORTURE, as it turns out producing (bipartisan conclusion) NO information that made “us” any safer? link to nytimes.com

        And I wonder if the guys in the black and white ball caps are going to turn out to be more like McVeigh and the Columbiners than even the Shoe or Crotch Bombers? But let’s wait to see… I’m getting anticipatory goose bumps…

  5. It’s sad that both sides want to place blame on a certain skin color. The right wants it to be a Muslim or Arab so that they can further the whole “war on terror” agenda. Some left wingers want the person to be “right and white” so they can demonize the tea party, which has its problems but i dont think they are terrorists.

    “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King

  6. The paragraph that begins “Streams of consciousness throw up streams of the unconscious” is worthy of framing. I’m currently visiting one of the reddest of red states on personal business, well out of my Southern Ontario/US NE comfort zone, and it’s been a challenge adjusting with equanimity to the world-view of those around me here. As Juan notes, we are dealing with deeply embedded cultural and psychological currents that go back to the settler-colonial history of this continent, including assumptions about race, culture, belonging, civilization and “barbarism.” As others have noted elsewhere, if the Boston bomber turns out to be a native-born white male his case will be treated as an individual pathology. But if the Boston bomber turns out to be a (nominal?) Muslim (God forbid), entire communities and categories of people will be pathologized.

  7. Once again, CNN committed journalism malpractice in its coverage yesterday. But this is nothing new for the network, which embarrasses itself daily with the likes of Dana Bash and Wolf Blitzer (and twice on Sunday with Candy Crowley’s talking head extravaganza), to name just a few.

    The hits just keep on coming. As Chuck Todd shames NBC News every day, David Gregory on Sunday must leave Tim Russert spinning in his grave.

    Yet the problem extends beyond media outlets that want profits from its news division. Even the “PBS NewsHour” has fallen into disrepute with its “he said-she said” format and the questioner doesn’t point out that what he or she said is a total lie, a distorting fabrication of reality.

    There was a time in America when being a journalist was a noble calling. Now, all it requires is a good hairdo, nice clothes and ability to say nothing for hours on end.

    • Chuck Todd was an absolute ace when he was MBNBC’s poll/data guy. He provided very insightful analysis and did an excellent job putting the results into proper perspective during the 2008 campaign.

      But as an all-purpose pundit and teevee host, he is just the absolute worst spreader of dull conventional wisdom. David Gregory probably couldn’t do any better no matter where he was put, but Chuck Todd has real talent and knowledge, and it’s completely wasted these days.

      • ” Chuck Todd has real talent and knowledge, and it’s completely wasted these days.”

        Chuck Todd probably has talent and knowledge, but more likely his current limitations are due to a corporate thumb on him than waste.

  8. Great analysis. Makes me glad I don’t waste my time on that type of media — there are better things to do and better places to be.

  9. The mainstream media has an important role to play in dispelling myths and, thereby, promoting informed opinions.
    Accordingly, the media should be stating that American Muslims are “less likely” than other Americans to endorse terrorism. In fact, in the US, “Islamist terrorism remains rare: the number of Muslim-American terrorism suspects and perpetrators apprehended each year averaged around 14 annually between 2001 and 2008…” (The actual average “is probably lower because these numbers include acts of terrorism…that have no apparent Islamist or Jihadist motives, but happen to have been committed by Muslims.”) In 2010, the US suffered “20 non-Islamic terror attacks…(most of them right-wing).” link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

    • Even if they reported it,it wouldn’t impact the reptile brains of the audience. It’s like intentionally telling a sensational lie and then retracting it, knowing the latter will have less of an emotional impact.

  10. I well recall Wolf Blitzer in the invasion of Iraq when our planes were bombing Bagdad. I was very repelled at the attempts to glorify and praise the carnage we created as well as his own attempts to act like a “war correspondent”. Interesting contract with the elimination of coverage of the war as the stupidity of our invasion became more obvious. Our so-called mainstream media loses no opportunity to reinforce the racial and ethnic stereotypes that divide us and which help maintain and intensify the economic divide.

    • “I well recall Wolf Blitzer in the invasion of Iraq when our planes were bombing Bagdad. ”

      And John King showed he was on the same team when he referred to the killings in the “Collateral Murder” video as “an accident.”

  11. This harkens to the OKC bombing. I was returning to my dorm from a class, and when I reached the lobby, several students looked at me and said my “family” was at it again. I stood and watched Tom Brokaw, in the absence of real news, assign blame to Arabs and Muslims. I racked my brain, trying to figure out why anyone would think Arabs or Muslims would BE in OKC, much less bomb a federal building there. Despite there being no real world where the World Trade Center holds equal weight with a federal office building in OKC, there it was, accepted fact.

    And unlike the times today, where discourse on the media is instantaneous, there was no one to hold Tom Brokaw accountable, and he never apologized for his false claims.

  12. CNN is a joke, seriously. It’s funny really because typically people are frothing at the mouth over Fox News. Slanted though they may be, next to CNN they look positively sane and professional. But then the bar hasn’t been set terrible high I guess.

  13. Slight divergence. Last night I saw the movie “The Gatekeepers”. The movie is a candid commentary on Israeli anti terrorism strategies by six retired heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security organization that is responsible for anti terrorism operations. No joy or arrogance, the common sentiment:”winning every battle and losing the war.”

    A great way for CNN to regain some stature would be to license the movie, show it in prime time a few times, and then invite the President for an interview to get his reaction. A light touch would have Wolf Blitzer sitting tied and gagged in the audience, unable to defuse the stark commentary of these six knowledgeable men, or help the President articulate and justify the rectitude of his assassination program, in the face of that commentary.

    Apologize for the digression, but please see this movie.

  14. Dear Prof. Cole,

    Hi/Salam. Thank you for this essay/post (link to juancole.com), which does not surprise me.

    Please consider sharing this on your blog (beyond a comment), so that “regular Americans” may learn what a relatively “dark skinned) person like me is capable of doing; May there be less darkness:

    As you know, I am an Iranian-American “Middle-Eastern-looking Muslim male” peace, human rights, and Earth activist, trained as a cultural psychologist, and I speak English with a Persian accent–and I write (and translate) poetry in English and Persian.

    I wrote this essay shortly after 9/11:

    The Real Enemy is Ignorance

    link to counterpunch.org

    By: Moji Agha
    OCTOBER 09, 2001

    Here is a list of SOME of the things I have been doing since 9/11:

    a) As a project of the Arizona non-profit organization “Universal Coalition for Interfaith and Intercultural Knowledge and Action (UCIIKA)” that I started (officially) on Sept. 11, 2002), I initiated the 24/7 still on-going “Simple Peace Vigil” (today is our vigil Day 3,682) the day after the U.S. started bombing Iraq in March 2003:
    link to simplepeacevigil.org

    b) On January 31, 2007 I started the IISCCIW or International Institute to Study Climate Change in the Islamic World:
    link to iiscciw.org

    My most recent projects:

    c) Truth and Reconciliation: Iran (TRP: Iran) :
    link to trpiran.blogspot.com

    d)The Mossadegh Legacy Institute (MLI), which has among its projects a petition (signed by Noam Chomsky at sig. 19) calling for a posthumous joint Nobel peace prize for Mohammad Mossadegh and Mahatma Gandhi:
    link to mossadeghlegacyinstitute.org

    Thank you for what you do to reduce darkness.

    Peace and justice on a living planet,

    Moji Agha (Mojtaba Aghamohammadi)
    Tucson, Arizona

  15. It’s also worth noting how entwined broadcast “journalism” and flat-out advocacy have become. Exhibit A, of course, is Fox News. Exhibit B: Before CNN hired him, wasn’t Wolf Blitzer a propagandist (to use the indelicate term) for AIPAC?

  16. A couple of years ago whenever I caught CNN dishing hogwash I would call the culprit on his or her error and finish my comment with, “CNN, the most trusted name in news. What a crock.” After a few weeks of that and realizing I was wasting my time, I quit. I still tune in to CNN to learn what events are passing for news, but I regard what the anchors say with reservations – especially John King and Blitz Wolfer.

    Come to think of it, I may have contributed to one success after I kept calling Anderson Cooper on his use of “breaking news” even when he was talking about something that happened the day before or the day before that. He seems to have dropped that BS.

    And, who the heck decided to send Erin Burnett to Israel to interview Netanyahu? Talk about someone being out of his or her league!

  17. Speculations about suspects can be used to bring attention to something the speculator wants to focus on. After the recent killing of a Texas district attorney, their was some attention given to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. It turns out, the culprit was an ex-employee with a grudge, not a white terrorist.

  18. I agree with the central theme: 24 hour cable news, and just about all electronic news media, is now driven by ratings and profits, and this has contaminated the journalistic aspect of what they do. The two are impatible. Where I think you are off the mark is saying the ‘reporters’ are forced to engage in talk show style formats that require time filling chit chat and thus inaccuraxccies, speculation and noise. Along with the bastardizing of TV journalism by the profit motive, the ‘reporters who populate it are no more journalists than I am an astronaut. They are fame craving, celebrity driven egotists looking for fame and fortune, and doing whatever it takes to achieve those ends. Truth or accuracy be damned. They are sickening to watch, with their manufactured earnestness, faux compassion, and foundationless expertise. Has anyone noticedthat TV reporters and correspondends are handsome, square jawed men or hot, skin perfect babes. Is that an accident of just good fortune that all these highly trained journalists and intrepid reporters, schooled in the nuances of investigating sources, uncovering stories, and infroming the public with insightful analysis, also happen to smoking hotties? Journalists? Yea right. Cable News organizations? Puh-Leeze.

  19. Salon just a couple of days ago ran a great article along these lines, of the curious habit to not label white villains as part of a malicious network, but as “lone nuts”.

    And we are seeing just this now in the mainstream’s coverage of the man arrested for the poisoned letters. Not even the slightest insinuation of his belonging to whatever agency or sharing in some pact. Would he receive the same treatment had he been of any other skin tone? Of course not, he would be called repeatedly a terrorist and the hunt would be on for any and every connection to an Arabic-sounding group.

  20. I have my own criticisms of CNN reporting news before it’s 100% confirmed but you – and most of the commenters here – aren’t at all fair to news organizations scrambling under tremendous deadline pressure to get things right. Also, you read into comments made by King and Blitzer insinuations that simply aren’t borne out. Given recent history, those questions are reasonable to ask. To suggest otherwise is to pretend that we live in a very different reality. And given the pictures released this afternoon by the FBI, those earlier suspicions may prove to be accurate. That said, I agree news orgs ought to report what they know and use sensitivity. But this gang-up is just utterly unfair.

    • It’s not unfair when everyone assumes every terrorist is anti-American or anti-white, when so many terrorists are right-wing “patriots” tied together by homegrown political networks that corporate media easily has the resources to investigate. Did American news media even mention that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik read prominent American anti-Moslem blowhards for inspiration?

  21. Prof Cole-
    I met you once several years ago and I remember your opinion of the mass media in the US was that it was worse than useless. With that in mind I almost never watch TV news and take most other sources with a lot of skepticism.

  22. The integrity and soul of corporate American news media began to die with the retirement of great anchors such as Peter Jennings:
    link to youtube.com
    Thankfully, that void is being filled by alternative media, many of which are featured on Informed Comment.

  23. Does anyone still watch CNN. I did when Ted Turner owned the company. When I watched it turn to coporate crap I stopped.

  24. Philip Weiss at Mondoweiss just took Chris “Motormouth” Matthews to task for pushing the idea of the Boston bombing suspects being Arabs:

    “I’ve watched about as much as a sentient being can stand of cable coverage of the FBI’s announcement of suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing case– an hour or so– and in that time Chris Matthews kept hinting that the suspects are Arabs. He wondered whether the FBI doesn’t have ethnographic experts who can say on the basis of facial features whether these guys are from a foreign country, and he promptly offered Yemen as a possibility. Later he pressed experts about his suspicion that the suspects are foreign. They put on new baseball caps to try to “hide their identity” and pretend to be Americans, he said. They’re political zealots, he said in so many words on another occasion– not the kind you find in America. I don’t see what evidence he has for these assertions. In fact, they seem unfair.”

    CNN received well deserved criticism above, but the neoliberals a MSNBC are no improvement.

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