Cable television networks last night had a choice to make: Which city’s protests shall we cover?
In New York, in Washington, D.C., in St. Paul and elsewhere, people were taking to the streets over the shootings of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, near St. Paul, and of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man in Baton Rough, La.
The cameras were on it. Have a look at the screen at Fox News at around 9:56 p.m. ET, when the network was monitoring protests in both New York and Dallas:
As those images beamed into the homes of Fox News viewers, host Megyn Kelly chatted about the issue of police conduct with commentator Arthur Aidala. Suddenly there was commotion on the right side of the network’s split screen. “People are running,” said Aidala of the scene in Dallas just before 10:00 p.m. ET.
“Yeah, they’re running,” responded Kelly in a voice suggesting she didn’t think too much of the scattering. Then the two resumed discussing the larger issues raised by all these protests.
Moments later, Kelly told viewers, “We’re looking back in Dallas, Texas.” At that point, the cameras of Fox News’s affiliate KDFW zoomed in on an inert body on the ground near a police cruiser. Someone could be heard exclaiming, apparently from the Fox News studio: “Sh–!”
It was no accident that Fox News was right on top of these events. “Our assignment manager was watching and saw the action on the feed and alerted the control room,” says a Fox News spokesperson.
Having broadcast her way into what will go down as one of the year’s biggest stories, Kelly began narrating and qualifying, narrating and qualifying: “This is disturbing. I’m not sure what we’re seeing but it looks from this vantage point like an officer down,” she said. “We’re not sure. We are not sure. This my speculation as I look at the screen. Stand by on that. I don’t know what I’m seeing. This is the control room trying tell me they have a better vantage point, so I’m sorry for the speculation. We’re all seeing this together. This is not clear. It is not clear. It’s not clear to me from what we’re seeing. But the situation is escalating. That officer is not moving.”
After showing the alarming images, Kelly said, “Look, we’re not going to show dead cops or dead bodies or hurt cops or hurt bodies or hurt protesters. We don’t know what we’re seeing, so we’re going to look at New York while we try to figure this out. This is the state of America today. ”
Then Kelly switched into analysis mode: “This issue has reached a boiling point. It’s reached a boiling point,” she said. “The cops are fed up with being called racists, some of them are fed up with their fellow cops. They don’t make a lot of money, they put their lives on the line to protect us. Ninety-eight percent of them are good cops who don’t run around trying to shoot people unnecessarily. And yet there’s no question there are some bad ones. And there’s no question that young black men in America today, many of them feel like their lives on the line if they have any sort of encounter with a police officer.”
So the cameras went back to New York — for less than two minutes. “I just want to go back to Dallas…it appears there’s some sort of a confrontation happening now,” said Kelly. “We’re not looking at bodies and we don’t know what the situation is. People could have been crouching, they could have been waiting but the cops are circling behind these vehicles, we saw them dragging a couple of people.” Then she alerted viewers to the state of reporting on Dallas: “And what we can tell you right now in Dallas is our affiliate there is reporting shots fired. That is all we have confirmed — shots fired. We don’t know anything more than that other than the chaos we’ve seen. We’ve seen images, we don’t know what the images mean. But it appeared that we heard shots fired and we’ve now heard from our local affiliate that that’s their reporting as well.”
Bolding added to underscore the impossible. With those words, Kelly seemed to be attempting to erase the images that viewers had taken away from Fox News just moments before. That’s impossible. Live video had gotten way ahead of confirmed facts. That’ll happen on 24-7 cable news.
Were Jon Stewart still in business, he’d be rebroadcasting this sequence, complete with snarky commentary. The confusion on the ground and the equivocal statements from the anchor chair are reminiscent of how CNN handled the manhunt that followed the Boston marathon bombings, which Stewart hammered with great relish. “Something just happened. We don’t know what it is,” said one CNN reporter on the ground in the middle of the manhunt. That was among the many comments that Stewart chided.
We won’t follow suit here. Sure, Kelly stumbled a bit, bumbled a bit as she stepped through a tense and fast-moving story. Her broadcast sounded as if there was regret that Fox News had shown the images of officers lying apparently lifeless on the ground. But those were highly newsworthy images, and Kelly inserted the appropriate caveats for viewers. A policy of this blog is to not nitpick anchors on breaking-news stories, as it’s one of the hardest jobs in journalism.
For the sake of context, CNN moved more cautiously on the breaking-news front, as Don Lemon cut into coverage of the St. Paul-Baton Rouge story to provide updates on the breaking situation in Dallas. “We don’t know the circumstances of the shooting here but we know that it came in just before we were going on air tonight, just at 10 p.m. Eastern time,” said Lemon long after Fox News had switched to Dallas. Over at MSNBC, host Lawrence O’Donnell announced the news at 10:23 p.m., saying “We’re going to have to go to breaking news from Dallas, where there are reports of shots fired after a demonstration the over the deadly officer-involved shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. Witnesses apparently have said that that at least one Dallas police officer may have been shot.”
As all three outlets reported throughout the night, the news got worse as the minutes wore on. The ambush in Dallas claimed the lives of five officers and injured seven others.