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Opinion MSNBC’s terrible live tour of the San Bernardino attackers’ apartment

Erik Wemple explains why he thinks news networks broadcasting live inside the San Bernardino shooters' apartment was wrong. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

“This is a bit of a media show, to say the least,” said MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell around 12:15 p.m Friday.

Mitchell has a way with understatement: She was teeing up the most extraordinary of television events. NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders was about to enter the apartment of the attackers in Wednesday’s San Bernardino mass shooting. Apparently, the apartment’s landlord made the decision to allow Sanders into the apartment, along with a troop of other media representatives. Sanders even reported that a representative of Inside Edition had secured access with a payment of $1,000.

Now, this is what MSNBC is all about these days. Breaking news, that is. MSNBC was giving us a real-time look at the dwelling of the attackers, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

Was it compelling?

No, it was life-sucking. Here is a piecemeal transcript of the revelations that Sanders broadcasted — live! — as he moved from room to room:

The garage is around back…FBI removed yellow tape…Here we go…so what we’re gonna do is Bill’s gonna come with me…So we’re walking up the stairs here to what I’m told is a two-bedroom apapartment…This appears to be the baby’s room…this is where the 6-month-[old]….I don’t see anything really on the wall….[Finds calendar and flips through it] It’s just a typical sort of calendar with pictures…As we look at the floor here, this is a prayer rug…you would face it towards Mecca. It’s possible that this prayer rug has been left in the position where it was….Look in this bin, here you can see all types of things have been shredded. The FBI must have decided that whatever was in here wasn’t that important because even when documents are shredded, they can be very painstakingly put back together….We have a check here from Chase to Syed Farook for seven dollars and ninety-eight cents….One of the things people have been talking about through all of this is how odd it is that this is the case of a parent, two parents, with a six-month-old….Here’s just some mixed nuts with peanuts…[Finds other things] Looks like it might have been even an unwrapped gift: Dream eyes, bright dream eyes, bright eyes dreamy…all the things you’d expect to find in a child’s room….

Mitchell chimed in about how the “baby’s crib is the most poignant thing of all.” And the veteran anchor clearly got a feel for how many viewers were feeling: “There is something so strange about all of this. Obviously this is all unfolding live. We had no expectation that they were going to open up the house at this moment.”

Then, Sanders entered the bathroom and begins rifling through photos in which people — perhaps other than the attackers — are vaguely identifiable. And in his very own narration, Sanders explained just how imprecise live-televised apartment-invading can be: “I’m gonna guess that there are the photographs of Malik. So this is the first time. This may be, OK, we have quite a number of photographs here, but we don’t know, we don’t know if it’s her.”

A voice of reason — though a belated one — came from Mitchell: “Kerry, as you go through some of these pictures, we would have to still try to identify” who are the people in them. “Let’s not show the child,” warned Mitchell as Sanders sifted through a photograph of a toddler.

As Sanders made his way into a bedroom, a voice can be heard saying, “Stop showing pictures.” A trove of credit cards and IDs awaited him there, and he found a California driver’s license that he brought right up to the camera. Someone tells him, “Don’t show pictures,” and then Sanders gets the hint, saying: “I take it we don’t want to see the pictures. Why don’t I sort of look at some of this and reveal that we have…”

Bingo, Sanders!

Details on the living quarters of Farook and Malik is a scoop, straight up. Any great, good or mediocre reporter would jump at this chance. It’s a rare opportunity, to boot. “I can’t believe the FBI allowed this,” said Howard Kurtz on Fox News.

What’s craven about the MSNBC treatment is the live airing and narration. It adds nothing and trivializes everything. This is a case in which MSNBC, being a cable network, had time to fill and a live opportunity on a hot story — and just decided to go for it. In doing so, it put itself in a situation where it encountered editorial calls more quickly than they could be processed. Sanders was just having a ball in there, chatting about baby toys and quite possibly invading the privacy of innocent people.

This was a story poorly suited to live coverage, without the time and ability to document a scene, determine what’s relevant and provide the filtered product to readers.

CNN was also at the scene at the same time as MSNBC. Anchor Anderson Cooper teamed up with correspondents Stephanie Elam and Victor Blackwell, who started out narrating the scene on the phone. Eventually CNN did show footage from the interior. Elam, standing at the same spot where Sanders had grabbed the driver’s license, said, “I don’t want to show you these IDs over here just because I don’t want to show you those addresses that are on there,” she said. A CNN spokesperson told this blog: “CNN, like many other news organizations, was granted access to the home by the landlord. We made a conscious editorial decision not to show close-up footage of any material that could be considered sensitive or identifiable, such as photos or ID cards.”

We’ll have more on this.

UPDATE 3:08: Here’s MSNBC’s statement on the matter. Take note of the boast about having the first “live shots from inside.”

MSNBC and other news organizations were invited into the home by the landlord after law enforcement officials had finished examining the site and returned control to the landlord. Although MSNBC was not the first crew to enter the home, we did have the first live shots from inside. We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.