TV’s Fast And Furious Boston Coverage

The need for speed in journalism is as old as the job and that need has only grown in importance as technology has eliminated every last barrier to immediacy. But speed can kill. It's a terrible thing to blow a big story as CNN and several other news outlets did on Wednesday by reporting that authorities had taken into custody or arrested a suspect.

In the aftermath of the Madoff scandal in 2008, I read Ponzi’s Scheme by Mitchell Zuckoff, an account of Charles Ponzi, the charismatic Italian immigrant who ran the old rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul financial scam in Boston in 1920 with such flair and boldness that his name has been permanently attached to it. He promised investors 50% profit within 45 days.

I was surprised to find that a good portion of the book was about the newspaper coverage. It had much to do with Ponzi’s rise and fall that played out in just several months. What struck me most was the lengths that the many rival papers went to not only to get scoops, but to publish them as quickly as possible in multiple editions and extras. They squeezed as much as they could out of the print technology of the day.

The need for speed in journalism is as old as the profession and that need has only grown in importance as technology has eliminated every last barrier to immediacy. It’s interesting that the entire Ponzi drama unfolded just months before commercial radio — with its ability to tell the story as it happened — would appear.

But sometimes speed kills.

One of the reason news operations try to be first is because it confers credibility. If you are first, you are an insider, you know more than the other guys, you are the place to go.

So, it’s a terrible and ironic thing to blow a big story as several news outlets — including CNN, Fox News Channel, AP and The Boston Globe — did on Wednesday by reporting that authorities had taken into custody or arrested a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. The reports were dead wrong.


It was especially bad for CNN, which must still be smarting from its miscall on the Supreme Court ruling in the Obamacare challenge last year.

Pity CNN’s John King. The Daily Show’s John Stewart sliced and diced CNN for its misreporting and King bore the brunt of the lampooning.

Tuesday screw-ups were particularly unfortunate because TV media did a fairly good job on Monday in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. “I felt particularly good about not only the depth of this coverage, but the balance of caution versus hard information that the viewer was receiving,” said RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender.

But there were missteps even then.

On Monday afternoon, CBS was reporting that authorities found an unexploded third bomb and reporters and analysts discussed how it could provide important clues in tracking down the bombers. The report turned out to be totally wrong. A more cautious Pete Williams on NBC said that authorities were examining packages that may be bombs.

In journalism school, I learned that every news organization has a credibility bank. Every solid story is a deposit and every bad story a withdrawal. The accounts of CNN, Fox News Channel and AP took a big hit on Tuesday. It will take some time to replenish them.

Speed is sometimes vital.

By examining uncounted thousands of pictures and videos from the scene, authorities by Thursday had pictures of the suspects, but they apparently couldn’t identify them or find them on their own. The more time that elapsed, the more time the suspects would have to escape.

So, they turned to TV, releasing the pictures at dinner time on the East Coast. When I saw the black hat and the white hat on WCBS New York, I knew it was just a matter of time — and not very much time — before the suspects would be caught or killed. As John Walsh will tell you, TV leaves the bad guys nowhere to hide.

Sure enough, TV flushed them out. On Thursday night, they shot a cop, high-jacked a car and got into a car chase and shootout with police in which another cop was seriously wounded. The black hat was killed, the white hat eluded police.

TV also became the means by which Massachusetts and Boston authorities locked down Boston and its surrounding communities and warned its residents that a desperate man, armed and dangerous, was on the loose.

It’s led to an extraordinary day of TV today as reporters put together profiles or the suspects, spoke to their relatives and passed along progress reports from the police.

My window on all of this has been mostly through CBS, which has stayed with the story most of the day. I appreciate the local angle that I have been getting occasionally from Fox’s WNYW New York by its simulcasting sister station WFXT Boston. It’s a smart and effective way for WNYW to stay in the game here in New York.

I’ve only had glimpses of what the other Boston stations are doing through the live streaming on their websites.

But here’s a report from Boston by Columbia Journalism Review Editor-at-Large Justin Peters: “Local Boston TV news has reported the whole thing, and done an absolutely heroic and tremendous job of it, proving that, even though local TV news is often maligned, it can serve a huge need in times of crisis — and can rise to the occasion when other, national outlets do not.

“I was on the scene for the MIT portion of this insane series of events last night, and observed first-hand the local TV news trucks roll up and start shooting footage, before any national outlets could get there.”

You see, as the papers of Boston understood nearly a century ago, speed matters. You can’t report it first, if you don’t get there first.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (2)

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Matthew Castonguay says:

April 19, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Speed has always been a key variable, but digital/mobile media have made a sea change. News…from the early days of newspapers right on up to the ’90s in TV, was mostly about “what happened”. Today, the audience already knows “what happened” so you have to be part of that “rough draft” of journalism process…what is happening right NOW. I think there’s a little too much hand-ringing…these TV outlets were pretty clear about the basis of what they were reporting and not conveying 100% confirmed. There is a unforgivable sloppiness/1000% buttoned-up spectrum, and we can’t tilt too far to the sloppy side. But to me the “acceptable” line is further to the left on this scale than old-school journalists are comfortable with.

Chisaki Watanabe says:

April 20, 2013 at 10:52 am

Some rough moments but many more examples of excellence. While much focus on the cable performance, good and not so good, kudos to the local guys who kept Boston informed. As usual Harry, you have a laser focus on the issue.