The longer the networks reported on the Boston manhunt on Friday afternoon, the less we knew about what was actually going on. Before the bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was finally caught that night, the confusion around the case had already raised some troubling questions about the power of TV news in general.
At a time when social media offers quicker updates than the anchors, most people only turn to the networks when they need a singular, authoritative voice — one that waits to report the news until it’s been triple-confirmed, sorting out the rumors from the facts. But as police closed in on Dzhokhar, the anchors seemed just as baffled as the people watching. You got the feeling that watching TV was no better than following ordinary people on Twitter or Reddit. That was scary. But what was even scarier was the creeping sense that you might be better off following no one, since nobody (professional or amateur) seemed to know anything. It was just a lot of frustrated people, mechanically delivering details they fully expected to eventually contradict.
All day, news was broken and quickly retracted. We heard that the Tsarnaevs had robbed a 7-11 store, then learned that this crime was not committed by the brothers (and that it took place at a gas station, not a 7-11). CBS News anchor Scott Pelley announced that the Connecticut police had issued a license plate number for Dzhokhar’s car, but before Pelley could even read that number aloud, the report had been rescinded. As the hours went on, networks relied more and more upon an endless replay of news that had already been confirmed and clips that had already aired: an interview with the Tsarnaevs’ uncle, some blurry video footage of the block where Tamerian was shot. But no one wanted to be the first to cut away from the coverage before Dzhokhar was found. And so we waited. And waited. “You keep hearing these words: be patient,” said ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz. “Now, the town also is in lock down. The whole city is in lock down. I don’t know how patient they’re going to be.”
It was clear that the reporters and anchors felt just as powerless as we did. They were even getting their information from the same places as we were, citing Twitter and using language like “we’re hearing reports” and “sources are telling us.” For a while, the Federal Aviation Administration restricted news helicopters from hovering above the area where Dzhokhar was believed to be hiding, according to the New York Times. So anchors were reduced to calling regular citizens who lived nearby, forcing them to look out their windows and explain what they saw. (“There are guns,” Watertown resident Denise Takvorian told CBS News. “It’s scary.”) CNN reporter Deborah Feyerick was on the scene in Watertown on Thursday night, trying to figure out what happened after a commotion erupted on the street. Her commentary was so absurd, it would’ve been laughable if the situation wasn’t so grave. “We’ve got a dog, a dog that’s on its way,” she reported. “Interesting, that dog is barking. Whether that’s a K-9, we don’t know.”
The problem wasn’t just that the anchors didn’t have all the answers. It was that they didn’t even know the right questions to ask. Fox News tried to link the manhunt with the gun debate, with Chris Wallace wondering if Boston-area residents “might like a gun to protect themselves.” After hearing that one of the suspects had “great character,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked terrorism expert Phil Mudd, “How can you be a good person and a terrible person at the same time?” (How can anyone even begin to answer this question?) On MSNBC, Touré asked an FBI agent, “What happens to somebody’s mind when…[the police] plaster their picture all over the place?” It’s hard to imagine an FBI agent caring about how a terrorism suspect feels about being outed. He’s not a psychologist.
Sometime around late afternoon, everyone got tired of waiting for something to happen. Nearly all of the major networks switched back to regular programming for a while. Suddenly, ABC cut from up-to-the-minute coverage of the case to Katie Couric, singing backup for Jimmy Buffett and hula-dancing with the Reeferettes — the perfect image for this very surreal day.
It wasn’t until 9:30PM that police finally confirmed that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been found in the backyard of a local resident’s house and taken into custody. By then, local authorities had already developed a tense relationship with the press. Though they thanked reporters for getting the word out that Bostonians should stay indoors, they also warned the networks not to keep reporting secondhand information. It was very telling that when Governor Deval Patrick addressed the crowd, he focused on congratulating the public for “reviewing photographs of their own” and “helping us narrow in on these suspects.” He offered less praise for the media.
“There are still some questions remaining to be answered,” Patrick acknowledged. He looked tired — and if you’d been watching the TV news all day, you probably did, too. What had just happened? How much of what we heard earlier was still true, and what had already been discounted? By the end of the day, Pelley had even apologized for any misinformation he’d relayed to the public. He blamed “the fog of war.” Of course, there was no war. There was only fog. All we learned is that we still don’t know what we didn’t know before. And we might not know anything for a long time.