All In   |  April 17, 2013

Taking on the media: reporting matters

Chris Hayes gives an update on the Boston Marathon bombings and talks about the implications of reporting the news incorrectly. NBC’s Pete Williams also shares the latest updates on the investigation.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> good evening from new york. i'm chris hayes . thank you for joining us on what is probably simultaneously the most active and the most confusing news day of the year. if you had cable news on tv today, like we did here at 30 rock , or if you were watching your twitter feed or checking in on the internet at all, you saw a lot of reporting thrown around that did not make a lot of sense. so, we're going to try to make sense of it all right now. here's what we actually know. here's the confirmed reporting on the boston marathon bombing case right now. nbc news has learned that investigators have obtained video of a person placing a black bag down near the scene of the blast and that authorities are looking to question that person. the footage has been described to nbc as providing, quote, solid leads in the case. as we told you last night, the fbi found black nylon bag fragments at the blast site and believe that's how the devices were transported to the scene, they've also recovered pieces of the pressure cooker bombs and the press has received official fbi photos of those fragments. we can also report tonight on the identity of the third fatality victim, she was a chinese citizen and grad student of mathematics and statistics at boston university . she was an only child and her parents had declined interview requests because, quote, every time we speak about this, it is like a dagger in our hearts. she was watching the marathon with two other students, one was injured in the explosion and is in stable condition . there are still about 60 people in boston hospitals who were injured, 12 still in critical condition . okay, now, if you had the misfortune of watching those developments that i just recited play out in realtime today, you may well have just lost the thread entirely on the day's events, because this, this is what it looked like in realtime.

>> this is cnn breaking news.

>> an arrest has been made, both federal source and my boston source say an arrest has been made.

>> federal law enforcement source tells me that an arrest has been made.

>> federal source tells her an arrest has been made.

>> a suspect is about to be arrested. the suspect is to be taken into custody by federal marshals and taken to a courthouse. that tells us a lot, that tells us they've got him.

>> one arrest, this vague description of brown skin , whether foreign or domestic.

>> and now it is being told to fox news -- to a fox news reporter, indeed, an arrest has been made.

>> according to the a.p., the suspect has been taken by u.s. marshals to a federal courthouse .

>> we are being told by our reporter that an arrest has been made.

>> take a half a step back, this has accelerated incredibly quickly.

>> some are reporting an arrest has been made and some are reporting that's not the case. here's the truth, we don't know.

>> conflicting reports about an arrest. tom?

>> i have actually three separate sources, but two that are very highly placed and close to the investigation that have just told me that there's been no arrest.

>> okay, now, that would be, you know, we don't know what's right or not right at this point. as anderson always says, you don't want to go down the road of speculation wrongfully.

>> no arrests have been made in connection with the boston marathon bombings and that's all we can say for sure.

>> let's take a moment to appreciate the evolution of bad journalism at work here. first, cnn has the big breaking news, arrest made in bombings case. by 2:17 p.m ., as the pushback has begun to roll it, they are maybe doubting themselves, it's just breaking news with no further description. something somewhere is breaking, america, we just can't tell you what it is. then around 2:30, the breaking news is conflicting reports on bomb arrest. yes, conflicting because cnn is reporting something that conflicts with what is actually happening in the world. finally, at 2:43, they report the justice department says no arrest has been made. notice, though, they are still counting that as breaking news. breaking news, the breaking news we've been bringing you for the past hour is totally and completely bogus. this wasn't just some abstraction happening on cable news that no one was paying attention to, and i understand people make mistakes, but the bungling of the story today mattered. this is video outside the courthouse in boston after all that frenzied, inaccurate reporting this afternoon, a crowd has gathered. to be sure, a lot of these people are reporters and media folks, but they are people who show up in hopes of seeing a suspect brought in. among them were likely anguished, angry people whose city has just been through a terrible trauma who wanted to see with their own eyes someone suspected of being responsible for it, a suspect who would not even exist yet but were told by the news was already in custody. and the one thing people knew about the suspect, the only thing they thought they knew for sure, thanks to cnn 's reporting was the following descriptor.

>> it was described to me as a dark-skinned male individual.

>> i was told by a source that was a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male. source had been briefed on the investigation, i should say, that the suspect was a dark-skinned male.

>> forget about the fact that cnn got wrong the information they said they had. just explain to me precisely what news value exists in the adjective "dark skinned." what exactly that's newsworthy is communicated in that phrase, a dark-skinned individual could be my swartier italian relatives or the ethiopian that won the boston marathon before it was bombed on monday and everyone in between. no, that's not the purpose of that phrase. that phrase is not there to convey journalism. what dark skinned indicates is aha, all you folks who thought it was a bad muslim who did this, you were right. because, of course, let's be honest, that is the sub text that says all of this. but our job, our job in the media is not to flatter those knee-jerk presumptions for the sake of momentary tutlation, it's to wrestle that to the ground and get the facts right. so, let's go back to what we do know about the investigation at this hour and for that let's go to nbc news justice correspondent pete williams . pete, thank you very much and thank you for getting things right today. i want to ask you what we do know about how the investigation's developed and how you would characterize the progress that is being made, given there was no arrest today, there is no single identified suspect, but nevertheless, it does seem like the last 24 hours have been quite good from the standpoint of progressing through this investigation.

>> well, i think they consider it very promising, and here's the reason. they've been asking for pictures, they have what they believe are pretty important pictures that show from several different angles a young man at the second -- at the scene of the second bombing talking on a cell phone , setting down a backpack, and then dashing away just before that bomb explodes. they don't know who it is. they have a good look at that person, and they are eager to do three things, figure out who that person is, find them, and talk to them. and we are told they haven't done any of those things yet, but there are several angles that they are working to try to figure out the identity of that person. the fact that the person was talking on a cell phone is important, because they can now try to go back to cell phone records and look at probably thousands of people who are on their cell phone at that time and start to work through that. so, they've got the picture, they've got the cell phones , and they can start now to work back and see if they can look at other pictures now and trace the movement of that person through the crowd, through all the pictures that they have. so, it's a very, very promising lead. can't call that person a suspect yet, because you never know. it could turn out to be innocent behavior, but it's one of the most promising things that they have, and they are working very aggressively to follow up on it.

>> i remember in the aftermath of the oklahoma city bombing , of course, there was that famous and iconic police sketch of the suspect and then when timothy mcveigh was apprehended, everyone saw this tremendous resemblance between the two. i guess the question is, if they do have an image of this person, are there plans to release that image to the public for the sake of publicizing who this person is?

>> plans, no. they have thought about it. it cuts both ways, because if they think they can't make any progress in determining who it is, then they probably will release it, but probably will do that only when they think they have run out the string that they have, because releasing the picture causes all sorts of problems. it alerts the person that they are on to them, it also causes all sorts of calls that come in from people who will falsely say they think they know who it is. you know, that's the price of asking for public tips, you take the good with the bad. you know, it may come to that if they need to do that. it's certainly something they've thought about.

>> i want to ask you, finally, about the ricin question. this has been this crazy sort of subsidiary story in the aftermats of boston , a series of letters tested positive for ricin sent to federal officials, lawmakers, wicker, carl levin , the president himself. we have an arrest now i understand of a man named kenneth curtis from mississippi on that case. can you tell us the latest on that?

>> the letters were sent to an army laboratory for testing because these initial field tests are often inaccurate. what i'm told is that after doing 24 to 36 hours ' worth of lab tests, they have a sort of mixed picture on it, that the tests show it's something, but they don't know the potency of it. is it really dangerous levels of ricin or is it merely sort of a junior league version of it and they are trying to find out whether it really is dangerous or not. so, they are doing more testing. in the meantime, you're right, they have arrested this suspect in mississippi. it's someone that they've been watching closely for the past 24 hours or so, because they had thought as of last night this was the person who sent the letters. it's someone who's written to congress many times before, well known to the capital police, so we just don't know whether this guy's going to be appearing in court tonight to face the charges or whether that will be tomorrow and what the charges he'll ultimately face will depend on the results of the test. if it turns out not harmful, that's one charge, sending threatening levels, if it turns out to be a poison, that's a much more serious charge.

>> quickly, we should state the fbi said there's no reason to suspect at this point any link between the boston marathon bombing and the letters.

>> right. the fbi , i think, goes a little stronger than that and says there isn't any.

>> nbc 's pete williams , thank you for your excellent work over the last few days, appreciate it.

>> you bet.