Back again. Blame the absence on the Beast, because I've grown tired of documenting it, especially when I've found out that people with no dog in that fight feel obliged to say that TN patients are exaggerating.
So I return to one of my standard topics, the disgraceful performance of contemporary news media in times of emergency: in this case, the explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line.
We shall not
pass lightly over the embarrassing overreaction by Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and by most of the area news media to a fire at the JFK library. It happened soon after the explosions and people with the jitters conflated the two incidents. Props to The Examiner
, which has forthrightly admitted that there never was a bomb. Also to NECN News
, which had the sense to send a mobile unit to the library when they couldn't get into the Back Bay. They covered it as a fire nearly from the beginning.
The next favourite story is that "other devices" were found in the vicinity. Were they? We have one official statement which stays alive as news, from later yesterday, to that effect. By the time I went to bed, there was a lonely statement that said "maybe not." This morning, everything but the original speculation on speculation seems to have vanished from the news cycle.*
Inevitably, every talking head drew comparisons with 9/11, even though there are hardly any except that a bunch of people, including a bunch of media, who were not victims talked themselves into a frenzy of fear. There is a real parallel, the Olympic Park bombings in Atlanta in 1996: real in the MO, real in the casualty figures, real in the absence of a claim of responsibility, real in the similarity of venues. It may even become more real if the law goes after a scapegoat and lets the actual perp go free for years afterward. After 17 years of the nonstop news cycle, it may be that law enforcement has given up on studying parallel cases and surrendered to the sound bite.
It is understandable that journalists who find themselves in proximity to a disaster whilst covering something else should be rattled: most people are. However, one of the considerations that is supposed to make journalism a profession is the ability to rise above fear and horror until one finishes the story, when one can break down in private. That feature of professionalism was conspicuous by its absence among most journalists close to the event. We start with the local Fox News channel, which began broadcasting "we are under attack" as soon as the first rumour about the JFK Library surfaced. Only one channel, WBZ, the local CBS outlet, was actually there. They began well, having an exclusive, then coverage began to break down under the press of events. They of all people should have been filtering official statements and pressing the authorities on statements that now appear unfounded. Worse, some of the crew committed a cardinal sin of journalism: they stopped covering the event and became involved in the rescue effort. It's a human reaction, but experience shows that quality of coverage suffers.
Having some personal interest in real information, we surfed through unsatisfactory coverage by absent media until we turned with hope to PBS. Alas, even the News Hour
turned out to be slightly tainted by the speculative germ. Nor did it help when they broadcast an interview with Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy. Now, I'm a Murphy maternally, so I appreciate the desire to tell a good story that runs in the gene pool. The lad's eyewitness account gathered steam and detail with each telling. However, only someone who has never before seen an explosion could have called either a "mushroom cloud." (Now there's a sound bite!)
Unfortunately, PBS coverage hit a low moment with the generally reliable news commentary of Greater Boston
. Host Emily Rooney lives near the finish line but was not there for the explosion: close enough to be jumpy, though. She assembled a guest list of media (and the omnipresent Steve Murphy), most of whom were eyewitnesses to the explosion. Rooney would have done better to surrender the chair to someone who was not directly involved in the event, someone who could have shown some journalistic detachment. Instead, she and her guests reinforced each others' fears. By the end of the show, Murphy had added "fireball" to "mushroom cloud." A couple of guests, who had seen the worst, seemed close to hysteria. All of them had looked into the future and decided that Boston would never again have a public event. Clearly, no one was buying into "Keep calm and carry on." That's unfortunate, because Boston will need doses of that for some time. Although a couple of the guests had attempted to get interviews on the scene, by the time they taped the programme everyone was a witness and no one was a journalist.
I understand horrors, having seen a few myself. But if one professes to be a journalist, one has three choices: put a cork in it and cover the facts, direct one's anxieties into the story by letting the words speak, or shutting up until one has command of one's emotions.
Overall, event coverage for April 15 rates a D. My expectations for some days to come are no better.
* Late news, and thanks to NECN again: Statement from Gov. Patrick that there were only two devices. Once again, rumour goes around the world before truth gets its pants on.
Labels: Boston, Boston Marathon, explosions, media criticism