MSNBC’s shame: How a sleazy prison reality show pushed aside coverage of the Planned Parenthood shooting

PLANNEDPARENTHOOD

We need a Pete Williams network.

The alternative is the two-hour mess on MSNBC “News” I watched on Friday evening, November 27, 2015, when the national news media covered the particularly tragic incident at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood Clinic. I turned my television on at precisely 8:22 PM.

On to the mess.

I’m not sure I have ever seen MSNBC cover an incident of legitimate public interest with a more embarrassing hodgepodge of speculation by law enforcement professionals who were nowhere near the scene, goaded on by queries from MSNBC correspondents asking for guesses about what might be going on inside, how law-enforcement on the scene might have ended the situation, how the criminal justice system might play out for the perpetrator, and any other possible question into which “might” could be inserted.

Dear MSNBC: I know about your enormous news hole. I know you have to stay on the air. I know you have to fill the time. But I simply will not accept that newsgathering should ever be a process of gathering hypotheticals, mights, maybes, or possibilities, especially when not a soul could be heard uttering such old-fashioned, pre-digital curiosities as “Let’s wait and see,” “There’s no way of really knowing,” or the ultimate stone age newsgathering principle: “We have not yet been able to confirm.”

And the retired experts, for all they probably do have to offer in experience and expertise, seemed completely unconcerned that they were allowing the imprimatur of their experience to serve as a seal of approval for a guessing-game.

I know that guessing, speculating, gossiping, and passing on rumors are all quintessentially human activities. But since when does that mean that they should also be considered legitimate newsgathering tools?

I’m probably in the minority. MSNBC’s audience research must tell them that even in the midst of an ongoing violent incident, audiences want coverage modeled more on CSI then facts gathered according to broadly accepted professional standards.

Which leads to Pete Williams. Which always leads to Pete Williams, NBC News Justice Correspondent. There he was yet again in the middle of all this confusion and speculation offering confirmed facts, news gathered from high-level sources, and erudite legal analysis. The guy is a one-man integrity machine.

And then right back to the nonsense.

In fact, let me ask you a question: imagine yourself as the friend or family member of someone somehow connected to this incident, perhaps someone whose safety is in question. Now, imagine yourself filled with all that natural anxiety and concern, watching MSNBC and hearing a retired police officer begin to tell you about a case he covered a decade ago with some similarities. And then imagine yourself hearing a correspondent reporting rumors about the extent of injuries to victims that no local public safety official has confirmed.

It is a sad reality of the times in which we live that we do frequently need evidence-based, legally informed, moment-to-moment coverage of catastrophic violent events. But what we often get is one long episode of Law and Order, occasionally punctuated by a guess or a rumor.

I’ve been watching the same uninformed, speculative coverage for too many years to restrain my inner Howard Beale. And so, in the months ahead, I plan to highlight and even post examples of exactly the kind of speculation I’m talking about.

One last thing: most of the journalists and law enforcement professionals responsible for this coverage are smart, perceptive, ethical, and well intentioned. This is almost never a case of incompetence and negligence. These are good people who sincerely believe they are doing their job.

And that might be the scariest fact of all.

P.S. At 9:15 PM EST Friday night, while I wrote this rant, MSNBC switched over to Lockup, their regular Friday evening reality prison program. The coverage was over.

 The problem is that at that exact moment, the front page of the New York Times reported that they had finally confirmed that a “tragic loss of life had occurred during the standoff.” Yet when I glanced up at MSNBC, I saw two inmates brawling with each other, being pulled apart at the Sacramento County Jail.

 So finally, after hours of uncertainty, we had news. Sad news and confirmed news. And MSNBC, so eager to speculate just an hour before, was nowhere to be seen just when we began to learn the full extent of the tragedy. Now it wasn’t even speculation and rumor passing as news. It was no news at all.

 And so it was that until 9:30 PM EST, as the other networks and major newspapers focused on what we actually knew, MSNBC shared commercials for Kia, Biotene, Ford, and the Home Shopping Network.

 And, finally, yet another brawl on the reality show was interrupted with a 60 second update about the casualties of yet another act of tragic, shattering violence.

 Pathetic. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. Just stop calling it news.

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I have seen the news, and it is Pete Williams: The gold-standard in coverage of complex, breaking news

I’ve long had a beef with the trend in 24-hour cable news coverage that enshrined hyperventilation, faux-urgency, and screens flashing the words “breaking news” as standard operating procedure.

It’s not that some news — much news — isn’t genuinely earth shaking, it’s that gravity is no longer allowed to logically emerge  from the magnitude of an event. News has to be hyped and flashed and yelled and screamed, as if some viewers or listeners might somehow have missed the seriousness of a terrorist bombing.

One result is that those first, few moments when we learn of an event has become absolutely polluted by hasty news judgments, spreading of rumors, and speculation about facts that virtually no one could actually know.

And when the event is truly traumatic — when the public is desperately struggling to understand something that seems to defy explanation — all this babbling and speculating can only increase widespread  feelings of dislocation and disorientation. The world – already heading to “hell in a hand basket “ – can only look more confused and unpredictable.

So what else is new?

News delivered in the form of screams and shouts  is old news. The frenzied attempts to be first that recently led CNN into a series of  major blunders is now routine. One wonders if the CNN brand can even survive the string of embarrassing and inaccurate “scoops” that have turned out to be so completely and unambiguously wrong.

What is news is that – amidst the tragic events of the last week – one calm, brilliant, judicious voice could be heard almost non-stop —  rejecting rumors, waiting for confirmation, dismissing publicized inaccuracies, and slowly – with impeccable news judgment – piecing the complex story together. It was a virtuoso display of what can still happen in the digital age when one person’s  supremely sound judgment and sense of fairness are allowed to trump all the bells and whistles and urgent music that too often passes for substance on the networks.

So let us praise and honor the work of NBC correspondent Pete Williams, who needed only a few phones, a chair and a table to find truth in a flood of fragments, half-truths, and rumors.

Any one of the hundreds of careful, declarative sentences Pete delivered this week was almost certain to contain more confirmed truth than any randomly selected hour of the crazed, over-caffeinated, circus now performing at CNN.

I have seen the news, and it is Pete.