By Howard Kurtz and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 12, 2009
The "news," such as it was, quickly hit the media echo chamber.
"SUSPICIOUS VESSEL IN DC/Coast Guard fires on boat on Potomac River," said CNN's "breaking news" headline at 10:05 a.m. Friday.
Six minutes later, an "URGENT" bulletin flashed from Reuters, which attributed the information to CNN.
That prompted Fox News to report that shots had been fired, citing Reuters as its source. "Report: Coast Guard Fires on Suspicious Boat in Potomac," Fox News's headline said.
At 10:29, the "crisis" began to evaporate as CNN quoted two unidentified sources as saying the incident had been a "possible" Coast Guard training exercise. That is precisely what it was. No shots were ever fired; they had merely been described on a radio scanner.
Thus it was that on the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who's often grilled by journalists, got to turn the tables. The information was not "verified," he told reporters, adding that the Coast Guard was going to hold a news conference and that "hopefully CNN will go. My only caution would be that before we report things like this, checking would be good."
But David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief, said his network had an obligation to report the information after an experienced staffer heard the urgent words on a scanner, with no warning that a drill was being conducted and, as his reporters made calls, they watched footage of armed boats maneuvering in the river.
"This was an event we saw and heard playing out a few hundred yards from where the president of the United States was commemorating 9/11, and the Coast Guard did not wave us off this story," Bohrman said. "We didn't just leap onto the air. . . . After 20 minutes of trying to get some confirmation from the Coast Guard and being told nothing was going on, it would have been wrong for us not to report this was happening. I'm surprised they would have done a training exercise like this and not let other government agencies know and not let us know."
Vice Adm. John P. Currier, the Coast Guard's chief of staff, refused to apologize for not issuing an alert, saying that "even though it's unfortunate that it escalated to this level, what you're seeing here is a result of a normal training exercise."
"A routine, low-profile" drill is conducted about four times a week in the same part of the Potomac, Currier said, involving as many as four 25-foot "response boats," each armed with a bow-mounted, .762-caliber machine gun. He said the training is so "low tempo" and carried out so often that the Coast Guard does not give notice to other agencies or the community.
But Friday was Sept. 11, 2009, and terrorism was on many people's minds. Currier conceded that "in retrospect, of course, we're going to look at the sensitivity" of conducting such an exercise on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Gibbs rejected comparisons to an unannounced Air Force flyover in New York earlier this year that scared many residents and led to an administration apology. But Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, called the drill's timing "questionable" and said he would ask the Coast Guard for a report.
While there is no one standard for when to broadcast breaking news, Poynter Institute media analyst Al Tompkins developed guidelines for the Radio and Television News Directors Association that asked: "Beyond competitive factors, what are your motivations for going live? . . . What truth testing are you willing to give up in order to speed information to the viewer?"
CNN's Bohrman said the calendar and President Obama's proximity to the Pentagon loomed large in the decision. "This is a sensitive date in our collective memory," he said.
The transmission heard by CNN was indeed eye-opening: "If you don't stop your vessel you will be fired upon. Stop your vessel immediately. . . . If you don't slow down and stop your vessel, and leave our zone, you will be fired upon." Someone said "bang, bang, bang," and then: "We have expended 10 rounds, the vessel is operating at stern." Nearly four minutes after the transmission started, someone uttered: the words "scenario break."
Courtney Dolan, a spokeswoman for Thomson Reuters, said the wire service had no regrets about moving bulletins based on CNN's reports: "We have an obligation to our clients to publish information that could move financial markets, and this story certainly had the potential to do that."
MSNBC, which had been airing a tape of the 2001 attacks, broke in to report that the Potomac incident had been a training exercise. Spokesman Jeremy Gaines said the network "took a few minutes to gather the facts before going to air."
Staff writer Spencer H. Hsu contributed to this report. Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."