A bunch of dummies working for various news organizations on Friday entered the apartment of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the now-deceased accused attackers in this week's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, because the landlord allowed them. See, unbeknownst to many in the field of journalism, the oversight of what constitutes "journalistic ethics" has recently been put in the hands of random California landlords.
It's a really great system that every profession should try. "I hear what you're saying about the rules, but that random guy over there said it was okay, so let's do it." Just a top-class way of doing business.
Anyway, for those who were watching MSNBC, what transpired was some sort of odd combination of the Jake Gyllenhaal film "Nightcrawler" and Charlie Brooker's Channel 4 series, "Black Mirror," to which more and more moments in the media are becoming comparable. Viewers were treated to the sight of reporter Kerry Sanders rifling through Farook and Malik's belongings, with no editorial restraint whatsoever. Dude was literally just picking up household objects, shoving them in front of a camera, and broadcasting them to the whole wide world.
All fun and games until you start broadcasting random photographs of people, and the identifying information on the drivers licenses of those not suspected of crimes!
Here's what the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics chair, Andrew Seaman, a fresh-faced fellow with the responsibility of coming up with something a bit more politic than, "Hey, you guys, that was effed up and you should feel terrible" to say about it, said about it:
Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.
For its part, here's what MSNBC had to say about this (via HuffPost's Michael Calderone):
""We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review," an MSNBC spokesperson said in a statement. ... 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.
There's a symmetry here. Ethics say: You should not broadcast, willy nilly, pictures of certain things on live television. MSNBC says: Hey, you know what, you're right. Our bad. Cool, so we're all agreed that putting the drivers licence of Farook's mother, with her Social Security number and the address where she resides and where Farook's infant child is currently sheltering, was a bad idea.
But there's a discordant note in there, and it's one worth interrogating. Per MSNBC: "Although MSNBC was not the first crew to enter the home, we did have the first live shots from inside."
Why did you need to get the first live shots from the inside?
Seriously. Why was that important? What is the journalistic importance of getting -- not the first live report -- but the first live shots of the inside of an apartment?
I didn't get the first live shots of this apartment, and you know what? I feel pretty damned great about it. In fact, give me a minute, I'm gonna high-five myself.
Okay, back to my question. Why was it important to beat all competitors to having the "first live shots" of this apartment?
I ask this because this is how I would have typically expected a news organization to handle this situation. A crew enters the apartment, they shoot footage, the reporter explores the scene, asks questions, directs the camera to points of interest, offers on-the-scene explanations, all very patiently and professionally, and then they step outside and edit everything into a cogent package, focusing only on what's important and omitting that which isn't, perhaps under the supervision of another adult whose job is to "produce" this package.
But that's not what happened. MSNBC wanted the "first live shots" of the apartment. And they succeeded! I do not want to take that away from them. They did it. By scrambling through an apartment, sifting through random items, as if it were some sort of demented scavenger hunt.
But why? Did anyone think to stop and ask, why do we have to do it this way?
See, the reason I bring it up involves some of the terms that Seaman uses in his assessment of the situation. Words like "investigate," a verb that suggests thoroughness, taking the time to do good, painstaking, and delicate work. The word "methodical" comes to mind, as in "done according to a systematic or established form of procedure."
It's almost as if a journalist guided by a "systematic or established form of procedure" is, de facto, guided by ethics.
Whereas a journalist guided by "that dude over there, Doyle Whatshisname, with the crowbar, who says that he's chill if we want to pry the board off the door and stumble around picking up teddy bears" is acting in a way that is out of sync with the conventional notion of ethics. Perhaps they are guided by some desire to get "the first live shots from inside."
So, why is it important to get the "first live shots from inside?" Maybe the importance is intrinsic to the content that was obtained -- content which MSNBC is still bragging about getting first. So let's examine what that content was.
- A wall calendar.
- A prayer rug. (Sanders: "It’s possible that this prayer rug has been left in the position where it was." Possible? Why I'd go so far as to say "probable," there, Scoop!)
- Shredded documents. (Sanders: "The FBI must have decided that whatever was in here wasn’t that important because even when documents are shredded, they can be very painstakingly put back together." Well, you sure better hope that's what the FBI decided!)
- A check in the amount of $7.98.
- A computer monitor.
- "All-in-one printers and scanners and keyboards."
- A bag of mixed nuts.
- A closet with hangers.
- A crib.
- A teddy bear.
- Dolls and other toys.
- An unwrapped gift.
- Children's books, including a grade school Arabic reader and "Bedtime stories from the Qu'ran."
And, of course there were all of the things that MSNBC is sorry to have gotten the first live shots of, like "photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review."
So, if the importance of getting the first live shots of the apartment's interior can be explained by the contents of those shots, then what content did the trick? The $7.98 check? Maybe it was the mixed nuts? I will admit, I kind of am curious about the "all-in-one printer and scanners and keyboards" thing.
In the effort to get the "first live shots" of this, there was something important missing: editorial judgment -- the thing that informs you that a teddy bear is not the same as a drivers license, which is not the same as an empty closet, which is not the same as a half-eaten sack of nuts. A voice that says, "Include this. Emphasize this. Leave this out. Don't broadcast this." Editorial judgment, properly applied, may preclude the possibility that you get the "first live shots" of the interior of an apartment. It doesn't preclude the possibility of getting the best story, about this apartment's interior, however.
Nevertheless, MSNBC maintains, in the face of criticism, that it was important to get "the first live shots" in this case. There is much they regret. Much they are sorry about! But what they want you to know that getting these precious, "first live shots" was a virtuous thing to have attempted to do.
But I have a different theory. Nah, wrong.
No, it was not important to get the first live shots of the apartment's interior. I actually believe that in this case, it would have been absolutely okay to not have gotten the first live shots of this apartment. It would have actually been completely all right to have been late to broadcast this story, perhaps even last to broadcast this story.
In fact, here's a thought: This information could have been obtained professionally and ethically, and then -- bear with me here -- never broadcast at all! A producer could have said, "Hey, thanks for the work, but there's nothing we can do with this, this is literally just some toys and random photos and furniture, good effort, though," and this would have still been journalism! Sometimes, journalism is what you choose to not do, to not show, to not produce.
It's true, you're not gonna win a Peabody Award for restraint. But you're not gonna win a Peabody Award for this crap either. So guess what? It's a wash.
So, here at the end of the day, this question remains: Why do you need to have the "first live shots" of a terrorist's apartment?
I think that the right answer is, "It is actually not necessary to have the first live shots of a terrorist's apartment." If there's anyone at MSNBC who disagrees with that, pinkslip the lot of them.
Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post, and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast, "So, That Happened." Subscribe here. Listen to the latest episode below: