Boston Marathon explosion: On cable, the same footage, best behavior

From CNN to Fox News, reporters tried hard not to speculate. But there's just so much time to fill...

By Willa Paskin

Published April 16, 2013 2:42AM (EDT)

              (Reuters/Dan Lampariello)
(Reuters/Dan Lampariello)

In the immediate aftermath of national tragedies, TV news becomes a kind of collective waiting room: You’re there because you can’t be anywhere else. There’s nowhere else to go, nowhere else to channel your fear and anxiety, or at least nowhere else that could maybe inform you, in five minutes or five hours, of something that you might need or want to know, something that will make sense of what happened. So for hours and hours you wait, because waiting is all there is to do, with news teams that have real, serious, tragic news to report -- but too much empty time to report it in.

Immediately after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, all of the network news channels, the cable news channels, and ESPN were airing nonstop commercial-free coverage of the catastrophe. Shamed by recent misreportings brought on by working too fast and carelessly — falsely IDing Ryan Lanza as the shooter at Newtown, claiming Gabrielle Giffords was dead, botching the Affordable Care Act decision— the news programs tried to be cautious. They were careful not repeat something just because it had appeared on Twitter (or in the New York Post). They didn’t want to speculate — the anchors kept saying they didn’t want to speculate — but they did have time to fill, and so on-air experts started talking about whether the attack was "sophisticated" or "homegrown,” whether it was perpetrated by al-Qaida or a lone wolf, whether the presence of shrapnel suggested the bomb makers had overseas roots or a working knowledge of the Internet. Speculation accrued.

There were slight variations in the coverage — different experts, different eyewitnesses — but the channels were remarkably similar, characterized by an endless loop of the same footage, a reel taken by the Boston Globe, of the two bombs on Boylston Street going off in succession, and then a mass of first responders and citizens moving barricades and fences away to reach the wounded as quickly as possible. We have had too many terrible, violent tragedies — too many occasions to gather around the TV like this — but it has been a while since one of them has been this visual. At Sandy Hook and Aurora, the horrors occurred in enclosed, little-seen spaces. That isn’t true of Boston, and the footage played again and again and again — is still playing — supplemented by other videos, other still photographs, and newscaster narration. Shep Smith on Fox News took to telling audiences when exactly to look for the second explosion; CBS encouraged viewers to listen for its sound.

Cable news abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of hard information the lack of speculating got harder and harder. At first, no one wanted to be the network to "politicize" the event. A few hours after the bombing Fox News' Smith, wondering if it was a terrorist attack, corrected himself, “these are semantics for another day, I suppose." But after the Obama presser, the pause on creating "narratives" started to crack up: In lieu of any facts about the victims or bombers, it was time to get into semantics about who the bombers may or may not be.

At 6:10 p.m., Obama appeared and read a statement that explicitly did not mention the word "terrorism," even though White House officials were using the words in their briefings. Fox News took the high road: It spoke to a congressman for 10 minutes and made no mention of the omission. Later, Brit Hume gave Obama a pass: “We’ll know soon enough, and I can’t find fault with him for not saying that.” CNN went the other way: Within minutes of Obama's appearance, the footer at the bottom of the screen read “Obama statement doesn’t say terror.” NBC unveiled its new disaster chyron: "Terror in Boston."

By 10 p.m., NBC was airing an hour-long special collecting the facts from the day, CBS and ABC were showing "Hawaii 5-0" and "Castle," and a “false flag” nutter had crashed his way into a Boston press briefing and harangued Gov. Deval Patrick about handguns. Fox News was wondering about how Boston connected to the gun debate. Cable news embarked on its seventh hour of not "speculating." Time to wait for the morning newspaper.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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