When your mother says she loves you: Semantics, sourcing caused stumbles on bomb attack story

October 25, 2018
Category: Newsletters

Sirens sounded. Reporters were in the street. Adrenaline pumped.

Mistakes were made.

A bomb at the Chappaqua home of the Clintons? A bomb in Rep. Maxine Waters’ office? Eric Holder got a pipe bomb? Barack Obama got a pipe bomb? Why was CNN targeted? Or Gov. Andrew Cuomo? Was the White House targeted?

The daylong rash of pipe bomb packages didn’t get close to the Clintons, Obama, Holder or Waters. CNN’s New York office was targeted, although the package was addressed to former CIA director John Brennan, who is a commentator for another network. The New York governor, variously, got a suspicious package, didn’t get one, then got one — but it was nothing. Fox and CNN cited sources that a suspected explosive had been sent to the White House — again, wrong.

That’s not to make light of moving story, or the power of the pipe bombs. The first such bomb, found Monday in the mailbox of Democratic donor George Soros’ home, could have maimed or killed someone. Authorities said it carried the same stamped return address as those sent to CNN, Holder, Obama and the Clintons.

But each, except for the courier-delivered CNN package and an accidental delivery to a member of Congress's Florida office, were intercepted at processing facilities away from their homes and offices. And that’s where the confusion, normal in any fast-breaking story, began.

The AP took down two tweets and removed references to the pipe bomb arriving at the Clintons’ suburban New York home, saying that incorrect information was given by a source. Similarly, the Obama and Waters packages were processed elsewhere. The package for former Attorney General Eric Holder went to a wrong address and was “returned” to the stamped return address for the Sunrise, Florida, office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Several of the pipe bomb packages bore her address.

The semantics? “Addressed to” was correct. Many news outlets jumped to “sent to” or “delivered to,” which was incorrect. (Even your morning columnist may have left a misimpression when tweeting that “Bill Clinton was at home,” meaning Chappaqua, leading to the impression that the bomb may have been there, too, though I didn’t say that).

And make no mistake, strong context was provided, from CNN reporters using cellphone audio on the street, to Fox News with split-screen coverage and a number of former security officials knowledgeable on mail bombs and other forms of what one expert called terrorism.

Suspicious packages turned out to be nothing outside of Cuomo’s New York office, as well as outside the building housing the San Diego paper and an office of Sen. Kamala Harris. One news outlet said the Los Angeles Times was being evacuated, but it was not — security was examining four envelopes, a spokesperson said. 

Nonetheless, news outlets like The New York Times sent memos to staff about tightening up procedures for packages. Dozens of other news organizations have tightened security measures since the fatal shooting June 28 at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in which five people were slain. On Thursday, pipe bombs were discovered intended for former Vice President Joe Biden and to actor Robert DeNiro, who, like the other targets, frequently have been singled out for criticism by Trump. 

Throughout Wednesday, the heroes worked behind the scenes. Those were the people who intercepted the mail — and were on the hunt for a bomber or bombers. In a tweet, Chelsea Clinton gave credit where due.

“Every day, I am grateful to the women and men of the United States Secret Service,” wrote Clinton, 38, who began living more than a quarter century ago with agents around for protection. “Thank you.”

Quick hits

THIS MUST STOP NOW: The son of George Soros says America must stop the forces of demonization that he says prompted explosive devices to be sent to his dad, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, CNN and others. "We must find our way to a new political discourse that shuns the demonization of all political opponents,” Alexander Soros wrote in the New York Times. “And we must do it now, before it is too late."

OWN IT: CNN chief Jeff Zucker raged at President Trump after the evacuation of his New York bureau newsroom. "There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media," Zucker said in a statement. Via The Hollywood Reporter.

NOT MY FAULT: Trump preached togetherness in an afternoon address. "In these times, we have to unify. We have to come together,” Trump said. “That’s a very bipartisan statement.”

A DIFFERENT FLAVOR: Hillary Clinton, who was campaigning for candidates in Florida when the package addressed to her New York home was discovered, gave a different take on unity. "It is a troubling time, isn't it?'' she asked a crowd in Florida. "We have to do everything we can to bring our country together. We also have to elect candidates who will do the same."

IN OTHER NEWS: News organization bosses, don't try this at home. WikiTribune is spinning that it will be closer to its readers and contributors now that it has fired the journalists who used to work there. By Josh Benton. 

NDAs: The Telegraph editorializes that the people have a right to know if non-disclosure agreements are used in quelling a story. As the paper put it, we should know “when the powerful seek to gag the vulnerable.” Likewise, TV news and op-ed editors should disclose to viewers and readers up-front in chryons and editorial notes if a commentator has signed an NDA — and is prevented from fully telling the truth.

THE READ: Eleven-acre East Island existed for at least 1,000 years off Hawaii, serving as the home of endangered monk seals and a former Coast Guard radar station. Earlier this month, a bruising hurricane crushed the atoll — and East Island disappeared. From The Guardian.

THE LESSON: The Pacific republic of Kiribati could be next to go, but the current president tells his nation that's too depressing and climate change isn't manmade. His government is dedicated to "put aside the misleading and pessimistic scenario of a sinking, deserted nation.” Meanwhile, he's kicked a filmmaker out of the nation and tried to ban his picture from a Sundance premiere (he failed). From The Washington Post. 

THE WEIRD: What do you do when you find out there is a site with 756 pages of comments dedicated to you? Chicago sports nighttime talk radio host Julie DiCaro stumbled upon it — and doesn't know what to do next. In a Medium post, she writes: "I honestly don’t know how one continues to move through the world knowing there are SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY-SIX PAGES worth of people out there who . . . what? Merely dislike me? Obsessively frequenting a site to say false and terrible things about a total stranger seems to indicate something stronger than dislike. Wish me harm?" Readers, can you offer any advice?  

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Have a good Thursday. See you tomorrow.