What the Hell Just Happened on MSNBC and CNN?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A baffling, surreal scene just played out on the two networks, where the landlord of the San Bernardino shooting suspects apparently allowed reporters into their apartment.

The result was disturbing. On live national television, reporters sifted through the remains of the lives of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. They picked over children’s toys. They held up photos, speculating about whether the woman depicted in one might be Malik. They displayed Social Security cards and driver’s licenses with readily identifiable information—and not just for the deceased suspects:

As if the journalistic irresponsibility of baselessly speculating while holding up images of potentially innocent people on TV wasn’t bad enough, it beggars belief the scene wasn’t taped off and guarded. Reporters were given free rein to walk through an apartment that is an important part of the investigation, and they were allowed to handle what one would expect to be evidence. Police didn’t appear to know the media tour was going on. Brian Ries of Mashable reports:

However, an NBC spokeswoman said the tour was approved by the FBI:

Senator Lindsey Graham, appearing on MSNBC via phone just as the network cut away from the footage, expressed astonishment that reporters were being allowed into the scene. Shocked reporters expressed revulsion on Twitter.

How did law enforcement fail to secure the apartment? What were the networks thinking? This seems like a pair of major institutional failures.

Update: Or maybe the landlord didn’t invite them in:

Update, Dec. 5: Megan follows up here.