Terror Suspects in Miami: News Decision Dilemma

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Since I promised you the "behind the scenes," I will let you in on how decisions are made and also ask you for your thoughts:

If you are a regular follower of the blog, you know that last week I posed the question to you about how graphic we should get when reporting news — most notably when we report a topic such as, but not limited to, a war. We face all sorts of news decisions all day long and even throughout the hour of our show. Some decisions are easy to make, since the answer is obvious, some are difficult to make. Some decisions reflect good news judgment based on experience and good heart and mind... and some are just good luck since the pros and cons of a decision in live news can be close. Some decisions are made after enough time to really think about them... others are necessarily made while the show is in progress.

Here is an issue I want to raise, highlighted by a blog written by NBC's Brian Williams after he watched some in the media — not us — go wall-to-wall on a story on Thursday night: How much time should a cable news network spend on a particular story when little is known about it? How does or should a cable news network decide this? Are there criteria? How do you know if a story is truly developing and you are likely to get more facts or simply not a story and thus run the risk of just plain hype? NBC's Brian Williams blogged on Friday about some cable news coverage of the arrest of seven terror suspects in Miami on Thursday. (As an aside, I think from his blog that he thought some cable news organizations went overboard with reporting.)

In case you forgot the story about the arrest of the seven in Miami and about which Brian Williams writes, here is a blurb from a Saturday edition, Washington Post article by reporters Peter Whoriskey and Dan Eggen:

"Federal authorities announced charges here Friday against seven men they described as 'a homegrown terrorist cell' that planned to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower and other buildings. But officials conceded that the group never had contact with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups and had not acquired any explosives."

In short, the group was up to no good, per the authorities, but had neither Al Qaeda connections nor the explosives to carry out the plan. If the authorities are right, this was damn good work on their part. What is most notable: by 10 p.m. ET we knew that no attack had taken place, there was no known connection to Al Qaeda and they had not obtained explosives. It just did not seem to be the story to me that it would had been if the group had explosives, connections to Al Qaeda and had not been caught by 10 p.m.

NBC's Brian Williams raises a good point in his blog (see below.) He faced the same questions we did on Thursday night: How much should he do on this story? How important was it? And was it a developing story or pretty much over when he hit air?

He reached the same conclusion our show did. This was not a story to go wall-to-wall on. While I was not able to watch other shows and other cable news networks on Thursday night (I was working!), I understand from his blog that other news organizations or shows went wall-to-wall on it.

I guess we were either wise and used good judgment or lucky when we made our decision. Our staff talked about the story before we went to air and about what was the responsible thing to do and in the end concluded this was not a story that warranted the "breaking news" coverage for a full hour at 10 p.m.

We thought the story was, while important, pretty much over with the arrests and that occurred well before 10 p.m. If the group is not Al Qaeda and if they had no explosives and if they were all in custody... what more could there be? What stood out to us was that there was no immediate danger. In other words, this was a plan to plan something... and it never materialized. A few different facts or a bit more information might have changed our minds, but it just wasn't there and, in our judgment, it did not warrant going wall to wall on it for the entire hour.

We took the cautious approach. We did not blow out our entire show and put the breaking news words or put a FOX News Alert on your screen for an entire hour. In our judgment, the way to handle the story was to simply start the show with a FOX News Alert about the arrest — since it was important — and go to our reporter Steve Harrigan in Florida where the arrests were made. We had him do a short report — a few minutes — and then moved on.

After Steve's report of the arrests and the behind the scenes, we continued to monitor the story throughout the hour in the event the story did change or new information developed. If the story changed, we knew we had the option of returning to the story. We always have the option of returning to any story during the hour.

We were obviously lucky, too, since Steve is the perfect person to monitor the story and report on it. Steve has traveled the world and covered lots of war and terrorism. (Here is a "factoid": both Steve and I worked at CNN and moved to FOX.) Our show having access to Steve and his experience allowed us to exercise good judgment and not risk hyping the story.

As an aside, and as noted above, our decision was a much easier one to reach than what faced NBC's Brian Williams. He had to make a decision several hours earlier since he is on the air earlier than we are. We had the luxury of using the extra time leading up to our show to dig for more information... and thus conclude that the story was not one developing with an unknown conclusion or imminent harm. Yes, the story was important, but we felt comfortable doing as we did with Steve Harrigan. So, did we make the right decision in your mind? That is the question I have for you.

And now a first: A part of a blog from a network anchor in a cable network's blog... here are the relevant (to this discussion) parts of Brian Williams' NBC blog on Friday:

"Let's begin with last night: Viewers of Nightly News on the West Coast saw a markedly different broadcast than the one we first fed out live to our affiliates at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. While we were aware of the Miami terrorist story all day long, we (along with other news organizations) chose NOT to report it at that hour because it had not all been executed, and not all the pieces came together. While we could have reported some arrests, (and other disparate elements we knew to be true) we could not have gone into any meaningful detail on the story in chief. Once it did break, the reporting (by our own Pete Williams) had already been done, and we were ready for it. Last night, cable news went big on the story. For hours on end. Live pictures of the Miami and Chicago skylines aired — as if we were waiting for some live event to take place. Live shots of the Chicago Sears tower (especially when viewed with the sound muted and screaming lower-third terrorist-themed banner graphics) implied it was going to keel over at any moment — or, at minimum, that it was in some imminent danger."

Over the weekend JonBenet Ramsey's mother, Patsy, died from cancer. I began covering the story immediately after JonBenet died in 1996. At first I was enormously suspicious of the parents: they were in the house where a dead child was found. Over time, and after learning more information and after interviewing the parents a couple times and spending time with them, most of my suspicion of the parents vanished. Note, I write "most of" and not "all." When a murder is unsolved, no one escapes all of my suspicion until it is solved. It is indeed possible that I have been fooled. A good investigator always keeps his/her eyes wide open and looks for proof that is convincing.

I have heard many theories over the years as to what people think may have happened, but none of the theories is supported by evidence. For instance I heard hundreds of times the theory that her brother Burke killed her and that the parents covered for him. I heard it so many times that I think some began to think it fact. Let me set the record straight: There is no evidence at all that Burke killed his sister.

By the way, to clarify: two blood spots were found in Jon Benet's underwear. From one of the two spots the authorities were able to extract DNA. The DNA is that of a man, but does not belong to either Burke or Jon Benet's father and does not match anyone in the FBI database.

Finally, here is an article from the AP that I found interesting, since it lays out the chronology of the investigation:

Chronology of JonBenet case

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