Monday, April 22, 2013

The Media Bomb

Against my better judgement, I woke up my wife, Melody, at 3:00am last week to tell her all hell had broken loose in Boston and that she probably ought to get up and watch the breaking news. We had already witnessed the terrorist bombs detonating at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and maiming 170, but the resulting manhunt was nearly as shocking. My guess was that the bombers were home-grown knuckleheads of the Tim McVeigh variety. Melody thought it was the work of Muslim extremists, so it turns out we were both right. After the release of the suspects' photographs, within three hours, the police had the two Chechen-American brothers identified and trapped, and when the city-wide lockdown was lifted, the surviving brother was located and taken alive. It was a stunning success for the Boston Police Department, the FBI, the ATF, and all the other agencies that helped track down these miscreants, but it was an extraordinary and historic failure for both print and electronic journalism.

The post-marathon manhunt made for some gripping reality television, only you couldn't change the channel. When the networks joined the cable news channels in wall-to-wall coverage, there was no escaping the unfolding saga. In fact, you could take a nap and afterwards, the same people would be speculating about the same things. It was like watching an endless episode of Dragnet, except nobody had the facts, ma'am. From CNN, to Fox News, to the Boston Globe, so many falsehoods were presented as fact and so many baseless rumors floated as the truth, it's understandable why a good sized portion of the populous doesn't trust the news "industry" anymore. The medium now has more face-men than real journalists, and a woman with an attractive cleavage is valued more highly than one with a journalism degree. For days, all the networks' top stars were based on a Beantown corner, acting like they knew something. Not to demean the seriousness of the event, but the twenty-four hour, non-stop coverage of the search for the terrorists in Boston knocked all the rest of the news off the airwaves. It would seem that if someone from Waco called a news outlet and claimed credit for the massive explosion in West, Texas for Al Qaeda, every news anchor in the business would be sitting in front of a bombed-out fertilizer factory in Texas talking about how they caught us unawares.

The Boston Journalistic Massacre began, predictably, when the Rupert Murdoch owned New York Post printed a front-page picture of a Moroccan-American man, falsely accusing him of being the bomber. As in most violent events, the first lie reported was that the hunted person was a black man. The Post claimed twice in one week that the suspects were "dark-skinned males." After CNN repeated the lie, and during the subsequent media frenzy, an innocent man from Bangladesh was assaulted. Next, Fox News and the Boston Globe reported arrests were made when there were none. The network cameras focused on a man lying prostrate in the street, arms akimbo, while police officers trained their guns on him; wrong guy. They reported on a mysterious person on a rooftop overlooking the bomb site; just a bystander. And in one of the most bizarre scenes of the entire week, a man was forced to strip naked in the middle of the street and was frog-marched to a squad car, private parts pixilated for the cameras, without comment or explanation from the chattering "experts."

When the manhunt moved to Watertown, the bad information shifted into overdrive. First, someone coincidentally robbed a 7/11 while the wanted brothers happened to be in there. Then the robbery became a carjacking and, within the hour, NBC's Brian Williams was seated in front of the Town Diner. When the network cut into a local feed and an announcer was heard saying, "I don't know shit," a red-faced Williams had to apologise for the incidental profanity and remind everyone that tensions were high. At least the guy was honest. The best reporting of the night was done by a bystander named Andrew Kitzenberg who spoke with MSNBC by Skype while a gunfight was raging beneath his apartment window on Laurel Street. Kitzenberg accurately reported the shoot-out which killed one brother, and the reckless escape of the other. Misinformation poured in about explosive devises at MIT and the murder of a campus policeman who was responding to a disturbance, when actually, he was shot while sitting in his car. When the quarantine was finally lifted and the second suspect was located, it was at first by a neighbor that saw something unusual about a ladder and a boat, but it turned out to be the homeowner who went out to his backyard for a smoke. NBC stationed Rehema Ellis in front of Massachusetts General Hospital to await the fugitive's arrival, but in a rich irony, the Islamic Jihadist was taken to Beth Israel Hospital for treatment.

My intention is not to criticize the police- obviously whatever they did worked- so who's to criticise? It's just that I've never seen the total lockdown of a major city before. In the drama's denouement, when it appeared as if every law enforcement vehicle in a tri-state area had converged on the scene, it occurred to me that if I had criminal inclinations, it would be the ideal time to rob a bank. Maybe it's just me, but 9,000 law enforcement officers in pursuit of a wounded teenager seemed a bit like overkill. Someone said it was necessary to have a show of force after a terrorist act. Probably so, but there weren't that many cops out looking for Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Israelis, who deal with suicide bombers on a daily basis, merely clean up and open for business the next day. An argument could be made that, with every camera focused upon them and the entirety of the American news media reacting to their every blood-drenched move, the terrorists succeeded in their goals. One deranged fanatic managed to lock-up a million people while he ran free. Major league baseball and hockey games were cancelled. All municipal transit was halted. They got their man, but now we know what martial law looks like. And finally, the major networks can stop their "breaking news" interruptions to regular programming. What I want to know is, if a thunderstorm were approaching Memphis, would the local stations break-in to the national networks' break-ins?


Anonymous said...

You are right, Randy. A wounded teenager and a dead brother held the nation captive and used hours of incredibly expensive prime time television to bring attention to themselves and some unknown agenda. Meanwhile the media (all major networks, and a few that wanted to be) enabled them and empowered them with non-stop news coverage. The police did a great job of monitoring the event and it's social media response (which actually helped in the eventual capture) to track down the two suspects. The media regaled themselves with hours of speculation and false reporting. They were giddy with the excitement of reporting a BIG story. Once you get a taste of instant "stardom" can you quit? Who knows, but I do know we will never find out. The next college that hires a new basketball coach, will trigger networks to interrupt regularly scheduled programs for "BREAKING NEWS"..!!

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are right again, Randy. Here in the DC area, the local NBC affiliate weather guy tried to break into continuous information on the Boston murders to tell us that it looked like a tornado might hit certain spots in MD but was shut down after a couple of minutes. I found myself hoping he WOULD be shut out because I don't live in the area in the possible target zone. The nuns from Holy Rosary would have been shocked at my insensitivity. All in all, though, I'm glad the system (!) finally worked and the kid was captured. O! For the old days when problem kids stole hubcaps or decided to pursue a rock and roll music career. Cheers!

performs said...

"It's just that I've never seen the total lockdown of a major city before. In the drama's denouement, when it appeared as if every law enforcement vehicle in a tri-state area had converged on the scene,... Maybe it's just me, but 9,000 law enforcement officers in pursuit of a wounded teenager seemed a bit like overkill."

I believe we will be seeing more and more exercises of over-powering marshal law. This will be an effort to get us used to it and thus accepting it as "normal."

We are, perhaps being prepared to make another cultural transition. One was from "citizens" to "consumers." Next up is the transition to "possible enemy combatants." This has occurred in other countries.