A Coast Guard training exercise on the Potomac River that coincided with the eighth anniversary of 9/11 sparked controversy this weekend, with blame falling on the military and on CNN, the network who started a short-lived panic by reporting a misconstrued version of the events.
On alert for anything resembling another terrorist attack, CNN overheard the following dispatches on an open radio channel: “You’re in a coast guard security zone… If you don’t stop your vessel you will be fired upon…Bang, bang, bang…We have expended ten rounds.” Given the suspicious activity’s proximity to President Obama, who was giving a 9/11 memorial speech at the Pentagon, CNN decided to report the story.
A full thirty minutes later, after Reuters and Fox had picked up the story, and air traffic at National Airport had been halted by the FAA, CNN aired an update: the activity was only a training exercise.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs chided CNN, “Before we report things like this, checking would be good.”
CNN said that after hearing the threat to fire, reporters contacted a Coast Guard spokesperson, who said she was unaware of any activity taking place on the Potomac River.
CNN’s Washington bureau chief David Bohrman explained, “This is a sensitive date in our collective memory…After 20 minutes of trying to get some confirmation from the Coast Guard and being told nothing was going on, it would have been wrong for us not to report this was happening.”
Some feel September 11th is no time for a simulated skirmish. “The anxiety caused by this situation on such a solemn day is extremely disturbing,” said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “It sounds very much like the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.”
Coast Guard chief of staff Vice Adm. John P. Currier refused to apologize, but promised to “conduct a thorough review of this incident,” and to “look at the sensitivity” of scheduling a training on the date in the future.
The Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins saw the blunder as an opportunity to remind reporters to verify their sources. “Although cable news programs face a certain pressure to be first and fill a lot of time with breaking news, all newsrooms can stumble in the race to be first. The skill of verifying facts is more important than ever,” he said.