After a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombing, the torrent of news coverage often gives us a little extra reason to cringe. While it’s too early to know whether that terrible act of terror will be followed by a daily drumbeat of terrible journalism, there are reasons to worry. There also are some past examples of crimes against journalism that are well worth remembering.
In the days before we knew that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the work of homegrown terrorism, there was a drumbeat of speculation that Islamic radicals were the culprits. Newsroom pulses raced when a Jordanian national was detained, then released. Steven Emerson, a commentator for both CNN and CBS, took it further, speculating without evidence that the bombing “had Middle Eastern traits.” Wrong. In an era when Americans can be rash in judging the entire Islamic world, Emerson and others did a lot of harm.
The poster child for bad reporting in these stories isn’t a perpetrator, but a hero-turned-victim. Richard Jewell was a security guard working an outdoor celebration at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Jewell was a soft-spoken country boy who longed for a career in public safety. When nails and shrapnel from a bomb tore through the crowd that night, Jewell was already in hero mode, having moved some in that crowd away from a suspicious-looking backpack, most surely limiting the blast’s death toll to one.
He became the story’s prerequisite hero, then abruptly became its obligatory villain when media suspicion helped make him the prime suspect. By the time the furor died down, Jewell was formally cleared and relabeled a hero. He won cash settlements from lawsuits against two news organizations, but never lost the scars from his plunge into the news blender.
The lessons of the error-prone rush to judgment in Oklahoma City and Atlanta didn’t stop Brian Ross, a veteran network TV investigator, from smearing another group only a year ago. Ross went on ABC’s “Good Morning America” shortly after the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., speculating that the killer had ties to the tea party movement.
His evidence? An Internet search found an Aurora resident with the same name as the shooting suspect listed on a local tea party members’ list. In one intemperate remark that later drew a rebuke from his bosses and an apology from Ross, he defamed a group with no connection to a mass murder and validated the lack of trust that many Americans have for reporters — all in the name of scooping the competition.
This time around, Fox News was out of the gate early. Within hours of the Boston bombing, they rolled out Joe Arpaio, the cartoonish sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. Arpaio had little knowledge to offer, never having experienced terrorism firsthand, but he was happy to talk about himself, saying he, too, had received bomb threats — as if he were jealous of all the attention Boston was getting.
A day later, “terrorism expert” Erick Stakelbeck jumped both the gun and the shark on Fox, saying without evidence that the bombing “had the hallmark of an Islamic attack.” I looked up Stakelbeck’s bio, and while it did not suggest he had had any counterterrorism training, it did say he used to work for Steven Emerson. Should I jump to my own conclusions about that? Maybe so.