When the FBI greets you by saying, “I didn’t have a good day because you are the first shooter who came back to life,” you know you’re not going to have a good day, either. Veteran and Navy contractor Rollie Chance and his family endured a few hours of shock, embarrassment, and fear after two major network broadcasters published his name as the Navy Yard shooter in Monday’s massacre. Now Chance wants to see some accountability for the error:
Then shortly after noon, he got a phone call from someone who said they were with ABC News. “They asked me if I knew Rollie Chance,” Rollie Chance said. “Then they said, ‘Did you know Rollie Chance was the perpetrator of the Washington Navy Yard shootings?’”
Chance, 50, thought the call was a joke. He told the caller, “I guarantee you 100 percent Rollie Chance didn’t do it,” and hung up.
Moments later, FBI agents arrived at his home. Soon after, reporters began piling up at the curb. And on Twitter, reporters for both NBC and CBS named Chance as the now-deceased killer. CBS also identified Chance on national radio. ABC, which called Chance, did not report any connection.
The two network news outlets quickly retracted their tweets and CBS corrected its radio report. But Chance is wondering how he will ever erase the accusatory Internet trail that led to his door and is trying to work through days of anxiety for his family, including his 9-year-old daughter, whom he held out of school for a day.
“Verify before you vilify,” Chance implored in an interview Friday with his lawyer Mark Cummings. He joined a list of innocent people wrongly connected to high-profile crimes, to include the brother of the Newtown school shooter, two Boston men wrongly linked to the Boston Marathon bombings, and security guard Richard Jewell at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing.
The mistake most closely parallels that of the Newtown case, but in that instance there was more substance in the erroneous identification. The shooter had used his brother’s ID, which created the confusion at the crime scene. This error was only a little less explicable. Chance’s badge was found near the shooter’s final location, a badge that Chance lost almost a year earlier. Police assumed that the badge belonged to the shooter, and multiple sources within law enforcement passed the information to the news media.
Chance notes that a false accusation in the Navy would have consequences, and wonders why there doesn’t seem to be any for the media:
He said if he had falsely accused someone in the Navy, he would be held accountable. “The media should have a certain amount of accountability,” he said.
Glenn Reynolds suggests that Chance should sue, as “Enormous damages would ensure greater circumspection.” As true as that might be, Glenn must know that’s an unlikely outcome. The media outlets in this case didn’t make up the name, and especially not out of malice. Law enforcement sources gave them the name; NBC’s Chuck Todd said that his network got the name from multiple sources before going to air. In order to prove libel in a lawsuit, Chance would have to prove that the networks maliciously aired his name as the suspect either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true. If the networks got that name from multiple sources as Todd said, then there really isn’t a case for libel, and therefore no damages — as enraging as that might be.
The only accountability we can apply to these outlets in this case is the shame of getting it wrong and the damage to their credibility that results. Perhaps with enough of that kind of damage, networks won’t be so quick in the future to run with a suspected gunman’s name, or his supposed political influences, and so on. As this episode showed, though, the media doesn’t seem to learn from their past mistakes.