"Bang, Bang"

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In an age of instant everything—and especially a 24/7/365 news cycle—the world of aviation continues to be remarkably vulnerable to the slightest panic. Unaccounted for valise in B concourse? Shut the airport down. Bomb threat half a world away? Strip search passengers.

On Friday, the eighth anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks, we got yet another lesson in this. Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. was all but paralyzed when CNN reported—erroneously, it turned out—that the Coast Guard was trading gunfire with a boat in the Potomac River, a mile from the airport. CNN came by this information because someone was monitoring military radio traffic and heard what turned out to be a training drill. The "gunfire" turned out to be the Coasties warning a boat—the simulated terrorist boat—that it would be fired upon if it didn't halt. It evidently didn't, and "bang bang" announced over the frequency was the gunfire. CNN missed that part, since its anchors were busily breaking in for a news bulletin.

CNN also learned yet again a harsh lesson in the news business: The difference between being first and being right is usually directly proportional to the size of the story. If the story connects aviation and terrorism on the anniversary of 9/11, when everyone is already nervous, it just doesn't get any bigger. Why do CNN and other news outlets do this? Are they just idiots? Or lazy?

They may be both, but the larger issue is competitive pressure in information markets that want everything right now. Via cable, via Web, via text alerts, Twitter and on and on. These networks know that if a major story breaks, the network that gets it first will likely retain the largest audience. It's the news equivalent of shoot first, ask questions later. And before you sniff about ethics and professionalism, realize that audience behavior drives this sort of lunacy. If you're the type of person who high mindedly drives by the accident without even looking, congratulations, you have the rarest of DNA. None of this is to suggest CNN didn't screw up; it did. It should've taken an extra beat to verify the story.

At AVweb, we have the luxury of a slower-paced news cycle—by design. We're sparing in pummeling you with breaking bulletins, thus we have a few hours if not a day to let the facts sort themselves before we publish. We do that because you—the audience—have told us you prefer it that way.

If CNN's viewers would do the same or if editors would be less itchy fingered, those passengers at Reagan would have departed on time and made their connections. But they aren't and they didn't.

Comments (18)

The terrorists did it to us on 9/11/01. We've been doing it to ourselves ever since. Common sence is a thing of the past.

Posted by: Kraig Krumm | September 14, 2009 6:31 AM    Report this comment

This is the problem with twenty somethings working in America's newsrooms absent the guidance of the veterans in the wake of faster and cheaper. Who cares about the two source rule anyway?

Posted by: Scott Hess | September 14, 2009 6:32 AM    Report this comment

Make that common "sense".....

Posted by: Kraig Krumm | September 14, 2009 6:48 AM    Report this comment

It appears that the "Laws of The Land" are junk of past trials. Check out USC title 47 section 325. Which outfit here is seriously in error?

Posted by: Art Sebesta | September 14, 2009 7:47 AM    Report this comment

This is what happens when news became a BUSINESS instead of a SERVICE. The news business no longer serve anybody but the advertisers now.

Posted by: Art Ahrens | September 14, 2009 7:48 AM    Report this comment

By all accounts, CNN attempted at least twice to verify the story before going to air. The report that the Coast Guard contact was unaware of any training exercise demostrates one clear point, that may have been missed by this editorial -- the "Improved Coordination" efforts that TSA and other Homeland Security Department creations were supposed to provide DO NOT WORK. It is all window dressing. But, we already know that, as we obtain plastic badges and get escorted to our airplanes.

Posted by: Jack Burton | September 14, 2009 7:49 AM    Report this comment

The statement: "the network that gets it first will likely retain the largest audience" is, in my opinion incorrect. The problem is only networks and national politicians monitor all the network news and not the rest of us. The networks just think that the rest of the world monitors all of the stations and will jump to whoever reports it first. I heard the news on NBC and I did not switch to CNN, because I like NBC and the report was already a tongue in cheek shot at CNN for being irresponsible in their reporting. CNN's claim that not reporting "10 shots fired" would have been irresponsible; is in itself irresponsible. When you eavesdrop on radio transmissions, and then scream 'fire!' when you hear something that maybe news, you should have to pay for the consequences of your actions.

Posted by: E.F. Covill | September 14, 2009 8:07 AM    Report this comment

If this chicken little government of ours was really interested in keeping the transportation industry safe and operating smoothly, they would fine CNN the equivalent of the hourly operating cost of every aircraft affected by their ridiculous "I saw a shadow, lets all run!" If you falsely yell fire in a crowded venue there are civil penalties to face. It's time to hold the news media to the same level of responsibility.

Posted by: Scott McGowin | September 14, 2009 9:05 AM    Report this comment

What I would like to know is, who was the genius that thought a terrorist training drill on that day was a good idea? CNN screwed up big, but couldn't anyone in the Coast Guard see that one coming? Why not go fly some jets over NYC, oh yes, the Air Force already did that.

Posted by: Richard Montague | September 14, 2009 9:20 AM    Report this comment

"Bang-Bang" will become a handy descriptor for false media stories- "Nevermind about the Zombie Invasion Herb, it was just an MSNBC having a "bang-bang moment".

Interesting isn't it? The same impetus for ratings results in unreliable reporting that is driving viewers away from traditional news sources. Bet some jogger along the Potomac twittered that the USCG had been out there all morning doing standard training maneuvers.

Posted by: Max Buffet | September 14, 2009 9:35 AM    Report this comment

Hold on here. Am I supposed to "knee jerk" off an irresponsible comment? What facts are available? Were actual LIVE rounds fired by an unannouced Coast Guard vessel, on the Patomac, near the Capital? Did the CNN newscrew contact the Coast Guard? Did the Coast Guard have an appropriate answer answer to the newscrew? Did the "Security" folks at the airport act with knowledgeable authority? Are you a little smug because you are "late" to the party? Com'on! That IS the "story" for all slow news reporting! Let me guess, you'll wait for Time and News Week. Nobody crashed today? No news is good news.

Posted by: Larry Fries | September 14, 2009 9:55 AM    Report this comment

Note to the thread here: We just deleted an anonymous comment claiming that CNN violated the law in reporting what it heard on the scanner. No beefs with the claim, but if you're going to comment, our rules require that you sign your real name as registered with Avweb.

This, more than anything, keeps discussions here civil. Whoever posted it, feel free to repost it. But please sign it.


Paul Bertorelli
Editorial Director

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 14, 2009 3:09 PM    Report this comment

The CNN dudes are just being their usual dumb selves. The over-reaction problem was at the airport. The sooner we put Transportation first and Security second (like in the name), the better off we will be. Why we need another cop heading the TSA is a mystery to me, but that's what Obama the lifelong government employee wants. We citizens need to take back our government from the bureaucrats.

Posted by: Dean White | September 15, 2009 12:59 AM    Report this comment

War of the Worlds all over again? Maybe - Maybe not.

One thing for certain though. The Coast Guard should revert back to Transportation, or better yet Treasury, where it was when I first served. Homeland Security is a hokey pseudo-patriotic name for a disfunctional branch of government, dreampt up by a dyfunctional administration in a failed attempt to fix (or cover up) their own chaotic mistakes.

Posted by: Dennis McNish | September 16, 2009 11:28 AM    Report this comment

There is a beef to the claim of CNN violating FCC regulations! FCC section 705 (the law) specifies there are no restrictions on divulgence for announcements relating to ships, aircraft, vehicles, or persons in distress (as defined by Websters as a state of danger or as defined by Wikipedia of use by search and rescue outfits for targets in critical or adverse conditions) Clearly other security services also thought this may have been the situiation. I know it feels weird to not push the button and speak to a dead microphone but till now US Code has always been strongly enforced and practiced for scores of years of military/security training. We all know why. Treat all controls as if they were bristling with cactus spines and think.

Posted by: Art Sebesta | September 16, 2009 11:39 AM    Report this comment

Having spent over fifteen years of my life fighting terrorist (or as some would like to call them “freedom fighters”) and guess what is their number one weapon against democracy. You guessed it mass media stories. The above news story tells them their strategy is working and the American people are frightened. The IRA were very effective when the newspapers reported on bombings that took place and the British people were adversely affected. When the newspaper stop their reporting the IRA became ineffective and the fear they command fell away.

I feel badly about 9/11 and do not want to distract from its devastation but do believe the reaction and the continuing over reaction is playing into the hands of the terrorist.

News media have discovered that the terrorist threat sells story so we can expect to see more of these hyped up stories being perpetrated.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | September 16, 2009 2:19 PM    Report this comment

Kudos Bruce! But are WE doing anything as 2012 looms? Our form of government itself is in question. The future must have a vission and a plan. Why must we shape it on the highest bidder and day to day conflict? There are BIG issues we are facing and the politicos are just playing games at our expense. Korea, Viet Nam, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina...What does that say about our ability to protect ourselves from the ordinary? We never learn. And worse, we never plan. Even worse, terrorists do!

Posted by: Larry Fries | September 16, 2009 4:52 PM    Report this comment

Thank you lw for your kind words. I agreed with you about the governments and this whole process called democracy. If we had true democracy then the terrorist groups would have representations in governments. Conflict would be at that level and not at the general population. Ireland is a typical example when Sinn Fein was accepted to play a part in government peace became the norm in everyday life. Unfortunately there is no money in peace so we are subjected to all these conflicts to ensure that someone makes more.

As the saying goes “life is great as long as you don’t weaken said the actress to the Bishop in the parlour”. I love it when I’m up in my plane looking down at what was created (who ever you thing is the creator) and revel in the majesty of the moment. What a wonderful world we live in its just a pity that so many can not see that and create reports the subject of which we are discussing.

Have a good one.
P.S. did you really have to get me going lw ;-)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | September 17, 2009 3:37 AM    Report this comment

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