"Something should be said for stepping up and owning it," network insider says amid criticism of bombing coverage
A CNN insider says "something should be said for stepping up and owning it" after the network backtracked on an exclusive report of an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombing.
More than 24 hours before the FBI said Thursday it was seeking two unidentified suspects in the case, CNN's John King exclusively reported that there had been an arrest. Fox News, the Boston Globe and other outlets followed suit Wednesday afternoon. But all had to walk back their initial reports after the FBI and federal prosecutors explicitly denied an arrest.
All of the outlets have come in for the usual criticism, but CNN has taken some of the hardest hits, including a searing takedown by "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart. The jabs comes as the network tries to reinvent itself under new leader Jeff Zucker and tries to close in on top-rated cable news rival Fox News, as well as MSNBC, which leads CNN by a narrower margin.
One CNN insider said the network's strong reputation for breaking news worked both for and against it in the Boston coverage.
"The blessing and downfall of being CNN is when we report something, people take it seriously," the person told TheWrap said Thursday. "Because people have tremendous trust in us. We live up to it 99.9 percent of the time. Yesterday fell in that .1 percent."
Stewart was unusually vitriolic in his criticism Wednesday, saying the network's conflicting information made it feel like it had "s— in its own mouth."
But what Stewart considers intersquabbling, CNN calls transparency. King and other CNN reporters shared new information Wednesday as they received it, as did the other outlets.
"Our reporting yesterday was based on three very credible sources," another CNN insider told TheWrap. "After King pulled back his reporting he was on the air almost every hour walking it all through. He was extremely transparent, and did a good job explaining it all. Something should be said for stepping up and owning it."
Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online at the Poynter Institute, said it's wrong to single out CNN for criticism.
"They weren't alone. It doesn't absolve them. [But] let's not forget it was widely reported," Tompkins told TheWrap. "We shouldn't forget that there were many who got caught up in this. It leads me to think — it is a guess — but only a guess — that they all got led by a highly placed person or persons."
Still, the messy day came just months after Zucker took over in January, at a time when media pundits are watching CNN especially closely for any changes — or slip-ups.
Before Zucker took over, both CNN and Fox News initially misreported last June's Supreme Court decision on Obamacare before quickly correcting their errors. And last month CNN was accused of being sympathetic to the teenagers convicted in the Steubenville rape case after reporter Poppy Harlow described their demeanor in court "as their lives fell apart."
A CNN executive told TheWrap at the time that Harlow was "outraged" by the suggestion that she had slanted her coverage toward rapists.
Tompkins said all news organizations should be held to the same high standard — but that many, like Stewart, nonetheless hold CNN to a higher one. The network, which debuted in 1980, is the oldest of the cable news networks and now stretches around the world.
"They've been at it a long time, they're very good at it, and they also have a global footprint," he said.
CNN is trying to close in on Fox News, which easily leads in the ratings, and MSNBC. CNN tends to do best in the ratings during big, breaking stories like the Boston bombings.
There's no way of understanding what went wrong Wednesday's until more facts come out, Tompkins said.
And while CNN wasn't alone in having to walk back the arrest, other networks deserve credit for not reporting it in the first place, he said. MSNBC's Pete Williams has earned plaudits for maintaining that there was no arrest, even as its rivals said there was one.
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