When CNN Tries to Be CSI

Broadcasts on Friday from the apartment of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik by several cable news networks underscore the limits of live TV.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
They were compared to “a pack of vultures.” They “stampeded.” They engaged in a “feeding frenzy.” They may have “completely lost their souls.” And even if they didn’t, their collective efforts meant that cable TV news “found yet another innovative way to completely repel much of its viewing public.”
Indeed. The reporters who flooded the apartment of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik on Friday—rifling through papers, examining children’s toys, looking at ID cards, exploring and perhaps invading in the name of the First Amendment and “good TV”—engaged in precisely the kind of thing that earns the media more public disgust than is given to tax collectors. As the New York Times’s James Poniewozik summed it up: “This is a tragedy, not freaking Storage Wars.”
The scene (and a scene it really was, teeming in a vaguely locust-like way) will likely live in broadcast-news infamy. It was live news at its livest, a case study in journalistic decision-making when the people on the screen know as little about what’s being shown as the people watching it. How much should reporters, who are so often pushed away by authorities, push back? How much editorial oversight should be sacrificed for the value of speed? How much competition between networks and reporters is healthy, and how much of it is absurdly redundant? Does it matter whether the apartment in this case was an active crime scene? Where is the line, exactly, between “that the people shall know” and “icky voyeurism”? Between serving audiences and pandering to them? And between serving audiences and offending them?
For now, what seems excruciatingly clear is that groupthinking and hive-minding and other forms of psychic bridge-jumping were helping to drive Friday’s stampede. Of course, viewers flipping among the news networks that covered the scene would have seen some differences in ethical judgment. MSNBC aired, among other things, a driver’s license and a social security card with their identifying details still visible, while according to The New York Times, “CNN said it avoided ‘close-up footage of any material that could be considered sensitive or identifiable, such as photos or ID cards,’ and Fox said the same.” (For its part, MSNBC apologized for the way it handled the reporting, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.”)
But there was also a broader, and in every sense more basic, herd mentality on display: the collective assumption that the apartment and its contents were newsworthy to begin with. The assumption that the stuff the couple left behind—the toys, the calendars, the dusty detritus of life—were pieces of evidence unto themselves, objects worthy of air. The assumption that CNN, when it is doing its job correctly, doubles as CSI.
On the one hand: The objects the reporters found in the apartment are pieces of evidence, to an extent. They do shed shards of light on who Farook and Malik were, on the kind of lives they led together. Journalists are taught to focus on the “telling details,” the little observations that can telegraph a character or a situation to readers or viewers or listeners with elegance and economy. John Ziegler’s tendency to “fidget” and “weave” as he talk-radios. Charlie Crist’s fan. Frank Sinatra’s cold. A calendar, a driver’s license, a doll, some dust—these could be, in their way, telling details. In real-time, of course, it’s a struggle to determine what, exactly, the details tell. At one moment, MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders held up a doll he’d encountered during his stuff-finding mission and gamely tried to relate the toy to the tragedy: “Not the sort of things that you would expect to find … from parents who would be so willingly able to drop their 6-month off, 6-month-old off and then …  leave her and go on a … a mission of such … such horror.”
And yet. With a story like this—when the not-terribly-subtle subtext of the media-driven investigative proceedings is ultimately how safe are you? via the more specific is it possible that your colleagues and friends might be planning to kill you?—those objects, as evidence, transform. The alchemy of live television—the hunger of it, the solipsism of it, the speed of it—tends to convert detail into metaphor. Everything becomes amplified. The Koran. The calendar. The dust. The doll.
All of these, announced with a telling mixture of triumph and sheepishness by the reporter who has been sent on this journey of discovery, become metaphorically meaningful. Not just objects, but totems. Absent the traditional journalistic formulation—details serving the narrative—viewers got something else: details as narrative. No story, just … stuff.
Then, robbed of the benefits of context or narrative, the telling detail becomes the pernicious one. Each object, each little detail of the lives Farook and Malik lived, proposes its own answer to the overarching question: How safe are you? It suggests that normalcy itself is potentially threatening. After all, if the couple had a calendar, and a doll, and a copy of the Koran, and they did all this
This line of logic, however, is wrong. In every sense. The reality in this case—at this early moment, when isolated guesses and discrete bits of information have not yet hardened into facts—is that the objects in question tell us precious little about the couple, their motivation, their crime. About, really, any of the things the reporters were purporting to tell us about as they flooded through the apartment's crowbar-jimmied doors on Friday. We know nothing of the items’ how they got theres or what they meants. And live TV, by its very definition, provides no time for the processing or the context-giving that is usually necessary for telling full stories.
What live TV does do extremely well, though, is to high-five itself for its own immediacy and urgency and importance. Friday’s stampede was an extension of the archetypical Reporter Pummeled by Waves, for no journalistic purpose whatsoever, during a blizzard. This was journalism, performing itself. It was journalism suggesting that there is nothing more to journalism than the gathering of stuff.
That suggestion in itself weakens what journalism is.  Even at its most raw, even at its most chaotic, even at its most live, TV news has obligations—to context, to fairness, to story. Of the questions that emerged from this spectacle, “did the journalists have the right to search the scene?” is a fair one. But did the journalists earn the right to enter that house? Did they do the work to uncover a story important enough to merit the exercise? No. What we saw instead was an empty pageantry of journalistic discovery: object after object, thrust up Simba-like to an audience that was both invisible and enormous. The story—and the public—lost out to the stuff.