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Was The Times Square Bombing Coverage Wholly Accurate?

May 07, 2010

WNYC reporter Bob Hennelly was in Times Square last Saturday night as news broke that a car bomb had been found. What happened next has been exhaustively reported, yet Hennelly explains that not all of the reporting has been accurate.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The car bomb that failed to go off in New York City’s Times Square last weekend is now a story with an ending. The man arrested, Faisal Shahzad, has admitted his role in the plot, but last Saturday when the story broke, there weren't many details for the media to go on.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Right now in Times Square in New York City there is an emergency evacuation in effect. This emergency investigation is following a small fire inside the back of a car, where police initially reported seeing a package there.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sunday morning, the mayor confirmed that the fire was indeed from a bomb that had failed to go off. The chase was on. Details quickly emerged about the car. It was a Nissan Pathfinder, and the previous owner, a woman named Peggy from Connecticut. Pretty soon a suspect was on the police and the media’s radar. And then they lost him.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: On Monday afternoon, Faisal Shahzad, wanted and under surveillance, gave law enforcement the slip. Sources tell CBS News the surveillance team lost him in traffic as he drove south toward New York’s Kennedy Airport.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that’s where investigators caught up with him, on a plane headed to Dubai.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: …JFK. The plane had actually pulled back from the gate, was recalled to the gate. He was removed from the flight, along with a - at least two other passengers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: An ending worthy of an episode of 24. But reporter Bob Hennelly who’s been reporting on the car bomb story for our producing station, WNYC, says that is just one of the things you think you know about this story that didn't actually happen. Bob, welcome back to the show.

BOB HENNELLY: Thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the number one thing is that the plane was literally rolling away from the gate when the authorities came in to catch him.

BOB HENNELLY: Right, exactly. We're driven in the broadcast media by tape, visuals and sound. And so, we had a real payoff here with this image of the Emirates flight rolling and taxiing away, evidently to Dubai, and to a clean getaway for the alleged bomber. Even though that didn't actually happen, if you go and ask people, depending on what they read or what they saw, they believe that, indeed, they called back the plane and deplaned the individual.

What actually happened was customs officials were able to get him off the plane before the jetway was pushed away, and it did pull away, and they called it back to pull off two other individuals who were i - suspicious. Those two individuals were released.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that what the media have done in order to stay on top of this story, many media outlets, is to basically quote other people’s anonymous sources, say from the AP, without really knowing who they are.

BOB HENNELLY: Right. This is a derivative anonymous source, and that’s problematic. In our news organization if one of my colleagues says, this is an anonymous source, they tell me who it is, I have faith and trust in that. I understand the nature of the transaction.

Let's be honest. Anonymous sourcing is a transaction, and the payoff in that transaction is I'll give you the narrative line without fingerprints. You can be oh so smart. And yet, you have to own up to people when it doesn't go right.

And what’s missing from the story is the role the media played in helping perhaps to give the suspect situational awareness about how imminent his own capture was. We had ev - circumstances where the media was actually going into the guy’s garbage to get leads. I mean, once it was released that this part of Connecticut was a focal point, the media’s going to do what it’s going to do. But then you have to ask yourself to what degree is the media’s desire to get the story putting us at risk?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do we know that it was the media’s attention that caused the suspect to drop out of sight for a while?

BOB HENNELLY: We really don't. And I'll be fair, I just think that it has to be included in the narrative line, that if you’re going to talk about the FBI and the Department of Justice and the Joint Terrorism Task Force losing the suspect, there has to be an accounting, like a good scientist.

You know, a scientist tries to account for their role in the experiment, and we need to do that. We need to own that, to be honest and transparent.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about that. We do know that the police initially closed off the scene, called it a police action, wasn't sharing a lot of information with the media. Where did things go wrong?

BOB HENNELLY: It’s funny because I was going to pick up my daughter in midtown, and so I was using the radio to get traffic situational awareness. And I heard “police activity downtown.” And it kept growing. There was no description of what the nature of that police activity was. And so I called DCPI, which is the press office for the Police Department and I got a kind of - well, we think it’s a car fire but it could be [SPEAKING INTO HAND] an improvised explosive device - not very clear. I was, like, oh, really? [LAUGHS] Okay.

At that point, I began to realize that they were using this controlled information, I would say, entirely appropriately, because they were trying to carefully evacuate the portions of Times Square that were affected by a potential blast.


BOB HENNELLY: And so, it’s very easy now to look back and realize that well, the bomb was, you know, disabled. But at the time they had to control the information. But where things got funky was as we get into Sunday, into Monday, we now have the national media trying to be cops. [LOWERED VOICE]: So CNN sends a satellite truck to all the places where the law enforcement people have been working.

What ends up happening is different officials from law enforcement feeding their favorite media people these details. That can be deadly because this is a working police operation, so the degree to which you’re hearing eight or nine hours before the individual is apprehended, with the specificity, details like that there was a transaction on Craigslist for a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder - well, that’s a big heads-up, don't you think?

And how important is it for the public to know about that, when they still haven't apprehended the individual? As a matter of fact, my sources tell me that [LAUGHS] there were satellite trucks at the guy’s house before the takedown. So, in essence, they - the media itself compromised the operation, and they never own it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob, thank you very much.