Making the news

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CNN today framed a Coast Guard training exercise on the Potomac River near the Pentagon as “felony stupidity.” But the case actually shines a light on the journalistic rules of CNN.

A few minutes after the president appeared at a ceremony honoring the dead in the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon, CNN reported that the Coast Guard had fired shots at a boat on the Potomac, sending the nation, apparently, scurrying for word of a terrorist attack.

It turned out to be a training exercise, which sent the CNN anchor team into hyperbole over the Coast Guard decision to have a training mission on 9/11, where it could be mistaken for an actual terrorist attack.

“Is there any admission on the part of the Coast Guard that they made a terrible mistake?” a CNN anchor asked a reporter. But the mistake was CNN’s. There were no shots fired, and along the Potomac, there was little indication anything was wrong, and a Coast Guard statement suggested the training exercise was primarily on a radio frequency. A CNN staffer heard the words “bang bang” on a newsroom scanner, and the news organization went with its report.

Later, a CNN reporter cited “sources in the newsroom” while saying the news network put the story on the air before calling the Coast Guard — or anyone else — to ask what was happening. It once was a well-observed rule in the news media that journalists don’t report anything heard on a news scanner without verifying its truthiness.

“Coast Guard Confusion: Training Exercise Sparks Panic on 9/11 Anniversary,” the headline on ABC News’ Web site screamed. Well, no, it was CNN that caused whatever panic might have ensued (Note: There’s actually no indication anyone outside the CNN newsroom had panicked.)

Try as CNN might in the aftermath to focus the spotlight on the Coast Guard, Washington officials weren’t biting. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says if law enforcement felt there was a need for the exercise it’s “best not to second-guess.” the Associated Press reported.

Gibbs sharply criticized CNN for airing an inaccurate report that shots were fired during the exercise, saying “before we report things like this, checking would be good.”

As an old colleague-comic in a newsroom used to say, “Never check the facts, son. You ruin a lot of good stories that way.”

(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

  • brad

    4 bonus points for use of “truthiness.”

  • Joanna

    Excellent journalism, Bob. I wonder how many other new outlets are going to clarify this story as well as you did?

  • Minn Whaler

    I think Jon Stewart needs you!