Just as it is with most breaking-crisis stories, the media had its fumbles on Monday during the Navy Yard crisis, some of which is just to be expected when we demand the latest breaking updates as they occur — as opposed to the days when we just waited for the evening news, or on rare occasions the “special reports” that would interrupt regular network-broadcast programming. Even with that understanding, though, some aspects of the coverage deserve to be skewered — and Jon Stewart focused on one outlet in particular that appears to have a more difficult time with these crises. In this hilarious segment, the Daily Show rips CNN, but this pretty much applies to the industry in general (via The Week):
Stewart actually started out the show with his media-criticism finger pointing at all the cable news networks. Collectively, he pointed out through a “wrongnado” video montage, they managed to get nearly everything about the Navy Yard shooting wrong. This is classic Stewart: He distilled cable news “down to its crunchy center” and showed a split-screen of a baboon masturbating and Frankenstein raging incoherently.
The next 15 minutes of the show, however, are aimed squarely at CNN, which takes the prize for its “sheer accumulation of breathtaking wrongness,” Stewart said. This starts out as a standard-issue Daily Show critique of the “make sh*t up” ethos CNN seems to apply when it comes to breaking news about gun violence.
But then Stewart had an epiphany — or spawned a conspiracy theory, take your pick. CNN sows this confusion on purpose, because their botched coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing really juiced their ratings. Stewart played an interview of CNN chief Jeff Zucker kind of conceding that point, though Zucker attributes the ratings boost to CNN’s post-Boston display of humility.
“The lesson they take from this is, it doesn’t matter how much they betray our trust, we’ll keep coming back,” Stewart concluded. “We’re in an abusive relationship with CNN!”
The “Force 5 Wrongnado” is clever, even if the sniping at the talk shows is very much off point. The rest of this is spot on, including this segment that parodies news coverage in crisis mode:
This dovetails pretty nicely with my column at The Week on the media’s reaction to these crises, but I’m more concerned about what media demagogues do with unsubstantiated “facts.” There is no hesitation to jump on hobby horses while stories continue to unfold. That kind of shameless exploitation did a lot more damage to CNN’s credibility than the speculation during the event did:
During the crisis, the media began reporting that the shooter, who ended up murdering 12 people in the Washington Navy Yard, was using an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. The AR-15 had been used in other mass shootings, which may be why some start off assuming that any mass shooting involves a semi-automatic rifle in general, and the AR-15 specifically. (The AR-15 and its knock-offs are among the most popular firearms in its class, with as many as 3.7 million privately owned in the U.S.)
However, in this case the assumption proved incorrect. On Tuesday morning, the FBI confirmed that the shooter used three weapons, none of which were an AR-15 or even a semi-automatic rifle. Instead, law enforcement found two pistols, apparently taken from victims of the massacre, and a shotgun that the assailant brought with him to start the shooting spree. CNN, however, initially chose to note that fact within a profile of how the AR-15 has been used in other mass shootings, oddly burying the lead.
Too bad that some people, including hosts on CNN itself, didn’t bother to wait for that information before using the poor reporting to reinforce their own agendas. Mike Lupica at the New York Daily News wrote an entire column about the evil AR-15 to argue for an assault-weapons ban that wouldn’t have stopped this massacre. He called the weapon the rifle “for the sport of killing humans,” which is utterly mystifying considering the vast number of AR-15s in private hands and the rarity of this “sport.” The Daily News ran a huge front-page headline that claimed “SAME GUN — DIFFERENT SLAY,” which as Politico’s Dylan Byers noted after the FBI’s statement, “sort of complicates things … for the New York Daily News.” Well, only if it takes its credibility seriously.
CNN’s Monday night line-up offered a couple of more pratfalls on journalistic credibility. Anderson Cooper’s chyron crew repeatedly asserted that the shooter had “legally purchased an AR-15 shotgun” while Cooper and his guests discussed the shooting. That reporting was based on nothing at all; it later was established that the shooter had once rented an AR-15, but was not in possession of it at the time of the shooting. That pales in comparison to that evening’s show with Piers Morgan, who repeatedly insisted that the AR-15 had been used in the crime, arguing for a new assault-weapons ban because of it, and shouting down his guests when they attempted to disagree.
The next day, Morgan shifted his argument to this: “Lots of confusion over exactly what guns Wash Navy Yard shooter used. But do you think it matters to the victims?” It mattered to Morgan the night before, and it matters to those pushing an assault-weapons ban, some of whom — Vice President Joe Biden among them — argue that people should buy shotguns instead of AR-15s for home protection. Had Morgan waited to launch his latest jeremiad for gun control, perhaps he could have crafted an argument that actually fit the facts.
At least the mistakes made during the event were mainly not malicious. That can’t be said for the demagoguery that followed much later at CNN.