Notes on the care and feeding of media frenzies

ImageToday we got to see a frenzy in full force. CNN, citing various official sources, claimed there had been an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombing. The Boston Globe, citing CNN, re-iterated the same. The AP, citing G-d knows what because I didn’t read their story, claimed an arrest was imminent. Then the national news outlets got in on the job and it was too late; anything even resembling a fact was going to die a lonely, forgotten death. TV news trucks and serious looking reporters littered the streets of Boston, making it even more impossible than usual to find a parking spot. Or, as our good friend Spike Milligan wrote, “Nothing happened but it happened frequently.”

On the plus side, we did get some humor out of the whole thing:

And even as I write this another frenzy is in the offing, “RT @JesseRodriguez: NBC’s Pete Williams: Arrest made in potential ricin letters case.” The media has the institutional memory of a mayfly on crystal meth. (I should have known better than to doubt Pete Williams. That’s like doubting the sun will rise.)

My lone experience on the inside of one of these things was in 1989, proving you don’t need twitter or even email to start a stampede. I was working as a news copy editor at The Boston Herald. If anyone asked I told them I was responsible for removing polysyllabic words from the paper — which was close to the truth. On October 24, an alleged human named Charles Stuart had shot and killed his pregnant wife while driving in a car in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood, he then shot himself in the abdomen and called the police claiming to be the victim of a carjacking.
Whatever else you say about Stuart he knew how to play an audience. The media went from 0 to full bat-shit crazy in the blink of a deadline. The national networks and newspapers parachuted so many people into Boston it felt like we were in France the night before D-Day.
Stuart claimed the perpetrator was a dark-skinned male between 20 and 30 wearing a red jumpsuit. Guess what the predominant skin tone was of the Mission Hill population? The Boston Police snapped into action and rounded up the usual suspects who, based on Stuart’s description, included at least 50 percent of Boston’s male African-Americans. In December the police arrested one Willie Bennett who, to no one’s surprise, fit the description — as did the members of Run-DMC and a significant portion of the New England Patriots’ defense. None of this prevented Stuart from identifying Bennett during a police line up. Mike Barnicle, then of the Boston Globe, wrote that the police had “covered themselves in glory” in their handling of the case. He was not being ironic.
And that sent the bat-shit crazy (BSC) through the sound barrier. There was no rumor so unsubstantiated that it would not make page 1 of any paper or the first story in any broadcast. The editors  were clamoring for anything they could use as an excuse to make it look like they had more information and they got it. My boss at the Herald, the late great Norm Gray, said all the coverage should be nominated for a Pulitzer — in fiction. Sadly, he was not in charge of the paper.
Oddly the case against Bennett fell apart quite quickly. This was mostly because Stuart’s brother Matthew came forward and told the police that he had been in on the whole thing and had tossed the murder weapon from the Pines River Bridge. Charles, perhaps knowing a good idea when he saw it, jumped off the Tobin Bridge the next day. No tears were shed.
Here’s how to tell that a story has entered the BSC zone: The Wall Street Journal starts reporting on a local crime story. The WSJ is a fine paper that covers business very well and that’s what they should stick to. In the Stuart case and now in the Marathon Bombing case they just get stuff wrong. Love ya, guys and gals but there are some sandboxes you really shouldn’t play in.

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The Ministry of Culture is a blog (duh!) about whatever interests me, a professional journalist. It looks at current events, culture -- rock & roll, literature, roller derby, opera, comedy -- military history and whatever else crosses my path. All opinions are my own.


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