Media Search of Suspects’ Apartment Raises Questions

By Mark Joyella 

“There is something so strange about all of this,” said MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, as correspondent Kerry Sanders picked up baby toys, sifted through the trash, and examined credit card statements and identification documents–all belonging, we’re told, to the suspected terrorists responsible for the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

It was a profoundly bizarre moment of live television, which began when the landlord who owns the apartment apparently opened the home to journalists. A small army of them marched in, taking photos, shooting video, and picking up anything and everything–including passports, photos, and drivers licenses, which were all displayed on screen.

For viewers, the items left behind in the apartment may be fascinating. But seeing the way journalists climbed over each other in a mad rush to be the first into, say, the powder room, closet or bedroom was strange.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 12.49.48 PMOn CNN, correspondent Stephanie Elam (left) staked claim to a bedroom in the apartment, telling Anderson Cooper, “I was the first person to walk into this room and saw how it was before everyone started touching it.” What was the value in Elam’s “exclusive,” if that’s the right word? Prayer books, ID cards, luggage, stickers, and signs the FBI searched the room and the attic above.

A CNN spokesperson said “CNN, like many other news organizations, was granted access to the home by the landlord. We made a conscious editorial decision not to show close-up footage of any material that could be considered sensitive or identifiable, such as photos or ID cards.”

A CBS reporter, live on CBSN, explained he would not show closeups of personal material–and would not even touch anything, as it was private property.

There’s no doubt there was “something so strange about all of this,” as Mitchell had observed. And it was surely awkward to watch–as liveshots collided with liveshots. But was this potentially damaging to the federal investigation?

Cooper, noting that “this is kind of bizarre,” stressed that investigators had finished their work at the home, clearing the way for the owner to open the doors and unleash the proverbial media circus. That is, assuming the landlord actually did invite journalists inside:

“Now you have thousands of fingerprints all over inside this crime scene,” said CNN analyst Harry Houck. “We have dozens of people totally destroying the crime scene, which is still vital in this investigation…I am so shocked I cannot believe it.”

Fox News correspondent Will Carr was also part of the media scrum in the apartment, airing some of it live, though not to the extent MSNBC did. MediaBuzz host Howard Kurtz called the whole thing “riveting, you couldn’t take your eyes off of it. But I don’t think it was terribly responsible.”

UPDATE, 2:30 p.m. ET: At a media briefing on the shooting investigation, an FBI spokesperson said “once we turn that location back over to the occupants or the residents or once we board it up, anyone who goes in at that point has nothing to do with us.”

More: MSNBC released this statement about how they handled the coverage:

MSNBC and other news organizations were invited into the home by the landlord after law enforcement officials had finished examining the site and returned control to the landlord. Although MSNBC was not the first crew to enter the home, we did have the first live shots from inside. We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.

And Fox News has released this statement:

After receiving permission by the landlord, and after the FBI investigation, we entered the suspect’s home to report on what we saw. We exercised cautious editorial judgement and refrained from showing close-ups of sensitive information, including specific identifications and photographs.