The Washington Post

TV: In Boston bombing, a race to slow down

TV critic

The two bombs that exploded during Monday’s Boston Marathon set off a simultaneous and sometimes just as chaotic mad dash for reliable information: The second the news showed up on Twitter feeds, those of us who still reach for TV remotes in such events were left to wonder why it was taking so long for the news to show up on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the broadcast networks.

What was once an allowable interval — 15 or 20 minutes — now seems like a dereliction of 24/7 duty, an unfair criticism, but nevertheless a fact of life in this age of impatience. News, both as a phenomenon and a commodity, must now travel faster than it can be verified, and our demands for who-what-why-how must now come bundled with caution. Twitter and other social network platforms reverberated with reminders to slow down, to retweet only that information that seemed credible or plainly evident.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

Television found itself in a now-familiar contortion, repeating information that came wrapped in qualifiers and wobbly attribution. Five bombs? Three? “We don’t know,” the men and women of television kept telling us, followed by “Again, this is not confirmed”; it took CNN some time to declare the bombings a terrorist act. The good news in all this bad news is a recognition that being a little bit right is no excuse for delivering information that is all wrong, because Lord knows, the human herd has a tendency to get it wrong at first. News simply feels different now, confirmed and debunked in real time by an active and wired community of ad hoc press watchers — who also perform, quite ably, as fresh sources.

For every link to a premature online story about a possible suspect there came a scolding from your mutual public, reminding you not to retweet and spread speculation. This is also the place to both float and debunk relevant coincidences and theories, which range from the approximate date (Patriots’ Day, Oklahoma City, Waco) to degrees of magnitude (Sept. 11) to modern-day cautionary sagas (Richard Jewell).

It can often seem as though we live in a world that no longer stops to think or observe. In terms of media — which can describe anybody — we tend to characterize these times as a panicky, troll-filled, untrustworthy cultural minefield of wolf-criers. But that’s not always so.

Here is where television still works, and is aided by the feeds and footage that come from the street. Viewers found themselves Monday afternoon in a familiar place they’d not visited a while: Terrorland. Ground Zero. Riveted by footage that came in from the finish line on Boylston Street. First was the perspective from a distance, in which we watched over and over as the first bomb went off behind spectators and a 78-year-old marathoner wobbled and fell. Later came footage from a different angle, directly at the site, as police officers, emergency workers and bystanders rushed toward the wounded and worked to remove barricades; through a billowing flag, we kept seeing a split-second glimpse of the chillingly frozen, skyward stare of one of the victims.

The events in Boston and the way they were covered once more lead me to wonder what our lives will be like once the concept of “media” is fully reinvented and reimagined in the post-print, post-television century. Some of us still cling to traditional TV systems through our cable and satellite subscriptions or by tuning in to a digital broadcast. Others of us proudly “cut the cord” and receive all our information via high-speed, wireless magic. The first way feels expensive and old-fashioned; the new way (also out of reach when you’re poor and unwired) is described by its users as pure freedom, so long as the bandwidth and traffic don’t bog down the live streaming. When a bomb goes off and the nation stops to watch, we see just how dependent we still are on having all formats at the ready.

A few hours later, just after 6 p.m., when President Obama gave an obligatory and vaguely reassuring news conference (“We still do not know who did this or why,” he said, “but we will find out . . . and hold them accountable”), TV reached its old, familiar rhythms: Bomb experts were called in to suppose and theorize while former investigators mulled the possible leads; news was soberingly relayed that one of the confirmed dead was a child; more eyewitnesses were interviewed by phone.

And a viewer, too, could get to a usual stopping point and declare: I have seen enough and now I need some quiet.



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