Don’t Just Blame CNN’s Fran Townsend for Boston Reporting Mistakes

What about the law enforcement officials who leaked information?

The breaking news alerts on my iPhone played like a stinger symphony. CNN’s Fran Townsend reports that a suspect has been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing. Oops! CNN’s Fran Townsend now reports that no one has been arrested, but they have identified a suspect. By early evening, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was reporting “significant progress” in the investigation.

The Associated Press and Fox News made the same mistake: Both quickly followed the initial CNN report with their own breaking news of an arrest. Both shared in the crow-eating with CNN.

Anchors from other new organizations had some difficulty hiding their glee as they distanced themselves from the CNN report. Former law enforcement officials were brought on the set to talk about the dangers of leaking such information.

The possibilities of such a report bungling the case are many. The suspect could go into hiding knowing the authorities are on to him. Worse, he could have been planning another attack and want to pull it off immediately. Also, if he was working with others, they are now tipped off and can get out of the country.

There was a chorus of cops, critics and commentators condemning CNN and Townsend’s work. She did hit the air too early with the arrest report, but quickly corrected herself. Beyond that, no one claimed the information was wrong, just that she should have kept her mouth shut.

If that is deemed a failure in judgment, then several others must also share the blame along with her. The law enforcement official, “close to the investigation,” who leaked the report of the arrest is one of them. He or she now is undoubtedly the target of an internal investigation. The two senior administration officials and a third federal official who then told Townsend there had been a misunderstanding among officials and that no one has been arrested, but there was a suspect, also deserve some scrutiny. How about the producers at CNN who probably not only okayed the report but worked themselves into a full-on “exclusive” froth over the story. And finally the pressurized philosophy behind the 24-hour news war that cares more and more about being first and less and less about the consequences deserves a heavy amount of the blame. The latter is why the other news outlets were pathetically hypocritical in their smug condemnation of the CNN report.

In the list above, Townsend is the least culpable.

We might learn today that Townsend’s reports are proven to be correct. It will be the man caught on the Lord and Taylor security camera running away from the blast before anyone else. Then we’ll also know if CNN’s John King was correct when he reported the man had “brown skin,” or if CBS was correct when they reported it was a “white guy.” Good for you if you are wondering why that was important enough to even report before an arrest.

Maybe Vegas should up the ante on the competing media sources and start placing odds on which news organization gets it right. That would not be anymore insensitive in the wake of a tragedy that caused misery, death and terror, then the media competition to be first.