A story about a deadly terrorist attack briefly inspired a frenzied media scrum Friday morning in Southern California when dozens of reporters and TV news crews entered the home of the two shooters in the San Bernardino massacre.
NPR's Nate Rott spoke to the landlord at the shooters' apartment in nearby Redlands after the scrum began. The landlord says he allowed journalists into the home of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik after it was returned to his control by federal law enforcement officials. Reporters quickly held up photographs to the camera, picked up documents and generally tramped throughout a site that had still been considered part of an active federal investigation just hours earlier.
While all three major cable networks showed footage, MSNBC was particularly aggressive, claiming it had broadcast an exclusive with its footage, shown only a few minutes before its competitors. Indeed, MSNBC's Kerry Sanders complained that rival news teams were "a-pushing and a-shoving."
He subsequently held up photographs from the apartment, presumably of family and friends, and even showed a California driver's license of the mother of the male shooter. Her identifying characteristics, including her date of birth, address, eye color and the like, were clearly visible on screen.
MSNBC issued a statement Friday afternoon apologizing in part for its broadcast: "Although MSNBC was not the first crew to enter the home, we did have the first live shots from inside. We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review."
It was a notable acknowledgement of the absence of editorial discretion. CNN took a victory lap by issuing its own statement citing a "conscious editorial decision not to show close-up footage of any material that could be considered sensitive or identifiable." Fox similarly broadcast images from the shooters' home but did not show images of the IDs.
Regardless, the scene was chaotic on all the networks, as though they were broadcasting live streams of reporters picking up scattered tiles of a mosaic and examining them one by one, without any hope of context or meaning.
People on social media complained in real time, accusing journalists of voyeurism or worse. CNN's Anderson Cooper looked visibly uncomfortable, and Wolf Blitzer later said, "I've certainly never seen anything like this." One of CNN's law enforcement analysts watching the video live said, "I am so shocked I cannot believe it," though he appeared to be referring as much to the decision by law enforcement officials to walk away from the killers' home as to the reporters' activities.
At a later press conference, David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI office in Los Angeles, said his team had extracted all relevant evidence and no longer had any interest in the apartment.
The landlord told a local CBS station that the media had "rushed in" — that he had not let all those reporters in. MSNBC's Sanders told viewers that the TV tabloid show Inside Edition had paid $1,000 to get in and that everyone streamed in with its crew. (A spokesperson for Inside Edition declined an NPR request for comment.)
After about 20 minutes, the circus had devolved to outright farce. A CNN producer told Blitzer that the throng in the apartment was no longer composed simply of journalists, but of curious onlookers: "There's a woman with a dog walking into the house."
NPR producer Becky Sullivan contributed reporting to this story.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In the news coverage of the San Bernardino massacre, there was a strange moment today. The shooters' landlord opened the front door, and reporters flooded in. TV channels gave viewers a guided tour of the most personal space of the killers - the kitchen, bedrooms and a child's crib and toys.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KERRY SANDERS: We have a bedroom here. And spread out on the - spread out appears to be credit cards and IDs. So here's one of the ones. Here's an ID. It's a California ID. Let me just look at it first - OK - Rafia Sultana Farook.
SIEGEL: That's the name of the male shooter's mother. And that was MSNBC's Kerry Sanders speaking. There was real-time outrage on social media as the reporters were still on the air. And taking close note of all this was our media correspondent, NPR's David Folkenflik, who joins us from New York. David, take us back and explain what the reporters were doing inside the house.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, they were milling about. You know, this was obviously a site of some interest to investigators. They've been hoping for a peek in. The question is, were weapons cached there in a garage behind? And suddenly, somehow, the landlord let the reporters in. Now, there have been some - some dispute about how this happened. You know, the FBI assistant director for the Los Angeles office said it was no longer an active site of investigation. They returned it to the landlord's control. The landlord, according to MSNBC's Kerry Sanders, who we heard just there, said that "Inside Edition," the tabloid TV show had been paid the landlord for access to the apartment. "Inside Edition" won't confirm it. But in any case, reporters streamed behind "Inside Edition's" Jim Moret to get inside. There was said to be a scrum - pushing and shoving. And in fact, one or two reporters apparently helped the landlord pull aside the damaged door to let the reporters in.
SIEGEL: And how would you describe the objections to the reporters' interest, given the seriousness of the crime, the interest in the crime - not the crime scene, but residence of the suspects.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, a lot of this was shown on TV live. And that is, you know, in a sense, unfiltered, unedited, unexpurgated. You saw photos - photos of people, presumably family members, friends, but people who weren't being necessarily linked to what had happened except by the presence of the photos there. There were toys of the baby shown. They showed, as just heard there - the mother of the shooter was shown by an ID card that included her un-blurred date of birth, her address, her eye color. You could almost get a credit card with that kind of information. She's not been, to my knowledge to date, implicated in any of this. A lot of people online said this was voyeuristic, even pornographic.
SIEGEL: It seemed, though, as though some of the TV anchors were struggling with that they were seeing, too.
FOLKENFLIK: I think that's right. You saw MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell while anchoring sort of warn Kerry Sanders not to show pictures of the child. And I think we have tape of that here.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SANDERS: And it looks like somebody 9th birthday party there.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Let's make sure we don't...
SANDERS: OK, here's the first picture we're seeing of a child.
MITCHELL: Let's not show the child, Kerry.
FOLKENFLIK: And indeed, later in the day, MSNBC apologized, saying, quote, "we regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review." And you saw Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, sort of with body language and with comments, signaling their discomfort and displeasure with what they were seeing on the air.
SIEGEL: Let me ask you, though, David, apart from the broadcasting live or showing live pictures - you're a reporter. Let's say you're staking out this place, and the landlord comes along. He's taken off the boards, and he invites you in. You wouldn't have gone in as a reporter?
FOLKENFLIK: I think it would be almost irresistible to go in. This is something you've wanted for a long time. But let me say two things. First off, you know, it's easy as a radio reporter to go in and decide afterwards what to show. We don't broadcast images live. We have chance to make decisions; TV reporters doing things live don't. And the reason MSNBC made mistakes was they didn't exercise editorial review. I think I probably would've gone in, if I want to be totally candid. And afterwards, I'd probably want to take a long, cold walk and a long, hot shower because it was a tawdry thing that you'd want to get off you.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you, David.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.