In a national emergency like the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the first thing required from the news media is accurate information. Unfortunately, TV journalists too often delivered misinformation instead. One who did so repeatedly was CBS News‘ Dan Rather.
“Let me pause and say that a car bomb has exploded outside the State Department in Washington,” Rather told his audience on September 11. He repeated: “Now a car bomb has exploded outside the State Department in Washington. No further details available on that.” He reported this car bomb explosion as fact at least three further times before finally adding a qualifier, referring to “a car bomb, which was reported to have exploded outside the State Department.”
After these repeated claims of a State Department car-bombing, Rather backtracked:
From Washington, Federal Protective Services now says there was no car bomb at the State Department. We’ve been reporting, which was reported earlier, that there had been an apparent car bomb at the State Department. And I will repeat for emphasis, the Federal Protective Services says there was no–I repeat, no car bomb at the State Department.
He added this self-justification: “We’ve been saying straight through this morning that there’s going to be those occasions when there are reports, rumors, speculation. We do the best we can to separate fact from reports. But it’s inevitable that some first reports will be wrong.”
The final word from Rather on the car-bombing in the Nexis database is ambiguous:
Then senior law enforcement officials said car bomb–and a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department in Washington, DC. That was senior law enforcement officials. But then later, Federal Protective Services denied any car bomb attack had occurred outside the State Department. So that remains unclear at the moment. Although the latest information is there was no car bomb.
In fact, there was no car bomb at the State Department–a fact Rather seems never to have flatly told his audience.
Buying the bridge
This gaffe did not prevent Rather from reporting a new “scoop” later that evening:
Now this just in from New York City. Marcia Kramer, former newspaper woman, now working at WCBS-TV, in New York, says that sources have told her that two people have been arrested with explosives under the George Washington Bridge. The George Washington Bridge, for those of you unfamiliar with the city, connects a part of New Jersey with Manhattan. So two people arrested on the GW Bridge in a truck with explosives. As this report—now, whether it was connected with the events of the day, we do not know. But an interesting report.
Rather repeatedly reported this as well: “Now WCBS-TV news in New York is reporting two people arrested by the FBI in a truck with explosives under the George Washington Bridge…. Whether this arrest by the FBI is connected with other events in the day, one can only question.”
Later, he prefaced the story with “it may not be over yet,” and added that “authorities say there were enough explosives in the truck to bring down the bridge.” Yet another repetition of the story stated as fact that “the FBI has two suspects in hand,” and that “enough explosives were in the truck to do great damage to the George Washington Bridge.”
As with the State Department car-bombing, Rather had to backtrack on this story as well:
Marcia Kramer of WCBS-TV, our CBS-owned and -operated station in New York, reported some time ago that the FBI had in custody two suspects caught with a pickup truck of explosives around the George Washington Bridge; now further checking on that story [reveals] that other law enforcement officials in New York said they knew nothing about it, and now Jim Stewart is saying that FBI headquarters in Washington knows nothing about it. We’ll have to put that in a long line of things that’s under the “Well, we’re skeptical now.” Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t.
There is no record in the Nexis database of Rather telling his audience that it actually wasn’t true.
Rather accompanied the backtracking with another self-justification: “I repeat for emphasis, we’d rather be last than be wrong, but in reporting of this kind, we’re bound to make some mistakes.” But is it really inevitable that anchors will pass on uncorroborated stories to the public—and portray them as fact, not rumor? For days, New Yorkers expressed surprise that the George Washington Bridge story was not true—victims of a needless panic that Dan Rather had helped to spread.