Did that really just happen? Did a horde of cameras and TV journalists just barrel into the home of the suspects in the San Bernardino shooting case, go through their things live on air, show pictures of innocent people and barrel out again?
Yep. Cable news found yet another innovative way to completely repel much of its viewing public.
The insanity started because the person who owns the home formerly occupied by suspects Syeed Farook and Tashfeen Malik apparently told journalists that they were free to look around. Someone used a crowbar to pry open the door, and the fun began. Reporters from CNN, MSNBC and CBS all took viewers on a tour of the home. The FBI told reporters that the news crews were not entering an active crime scene—something network spokespeople were quick to emphasize. Whatever the case, it made for deeply unsettling viewing. Law enforcement analysts on CNN pronounced themselves shocked at what they were seeing.
While none of the networks draped themselves in glory, MSNBC was undoubtedly the worst offender. As reporter Kerry Sanders rifled through pictures of children, a queasy-sounding Andrea Mitchell told him to "not show the child." Sanders, apparently overcome with eagerness, didn't get the hint. He went on to show the Social Security card and ID of Farook's mother—who is both alive and has not been implicated in any crime at all. No doubt she will thank Sanders and MSNBC for exposing her so directly to the current climate of fear, violence and Islamophobia.
Perhaps even more distressing was the way in which the suspects' religion was handled. Reporters held up Qurans, Arabic books and prayer beads as though they were sinister and strange objects—not basic building blocks of any faith. The news that the suspects may have been influenced in some way by ISIS makes it legitimate to explore religion's role in their actions, but there is a difference between trying to get to the bottom of their motivation and in casting a belief in Islam itself as a sign of wrongdoing. CNN and MSNBC, unwittingly or not, are bolstering the forces that wish to brand all Muslims as worthy of suspicion merely by the fact of their existence.
You might forgive some of this if viewers actually learned anything relevant from these dime-store Poirots. But the reporters all indulged in the flashy but ultimately totally informationless free-association journalism so typical of live cable news. Holding up pictures of children you know nothing about isn't just gross—it's pointless.
It does not take any sort of expertise in journalism ethics to know that you shouldn't randomly rifle through people's things and speculate wildly about what you find on live national television. It takes a modicum of common sense—and, possibly, some shame. Breaking news, unfortunately, often leads to the total abandonment of those things. And in an age where news outlets are either struggling to cope with the free-for-all information ecology wrought by social media, or are trying to harness it to maintain their own relevance, there is an even greater incentive to both literally and figuratively bust down more doors. It was as though CNN and MSNBC were succumbing to the freedoms granted to Periscope-wielding amateurs. It won't be the last time that happens. Many people may have felt extremely unnerved by what they saw the media doing in the Farook residence. It's probably a feeling they should get used to.