The shooting was on the afternoon of March 10, 1981, nearly 36 years ago. John Hinckley shot Reagan (the bullet to the chest nearly killed him) and wounded Reagan spokesman James Brady, paralyzing him. A Secret Service agent and a policeman also were wounded.
Television coverage was limited to ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC.
Frank Reynolds, anchor of ABC News, broke the story about 2:45 p.m., saying, “The president was not hit.”
The other anchors followed at 3 p.m. They, too, insisted Reagan was not hit.
On CNN, Bernard Shaw had a one-sided telephone conversation with White House correspondent Bob Berkowitz, who was near the scene at the hotel. Between long pauses and uncomfortable glances at the camera, Shaw shared what he knew with Berkowitz.
“I’ve just been told in my [opposite] ear that Jim Brady is still on the ground,” Shaw relayed to Berkowitz. He hung up and looked at the camera. “That’s just how confused it is,” he said.
“We cannot say it too many times, the President of the United States is okay,” repeated Shaw, citing a White House statement as producers off camera pushed paper after paper onto his desk.
“And now I’m told,” Shaw said after touching his left ear, “The President sustained a bump while he was being pushed into the car.”The bump was a bullet.
Monitoring one another’s broadcasts, anchors repeated one solid refrain: “The president was not hit.”Rather than admit they knew nothing, the anchors fed the nation rumors. Dead air was a bigger sin than getting the story wrong.
Off camera, someone handed him a yellow slip of paper. “He was wounded!” Reynolds stated emphatically. Putting his hand to his head, he said, “My God!” and then, “The President was hit! The typed information that I have is that he’s okay.” He turned to someone off camera. “Speak up!”
“All of this that we’ve been telling you is incorrect,” said Reynolds, shifting his gaze back and forth. “We must redraw this tragedy in different terms.”
Back at the hospital, reporters booed doctors on live television for giving exclusives to other news outlets. Senators huddled in front of a television in a cloakroom as television news reports jumped from Reagan having only been grazed to being in surgery for hours to undergoing open-heart surgery.And later, there was this:
Dan Rather, in his first major event as anchor for CBS News, noted on air that the Secretary of State was fifth in line to succession (after the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate), not third. Some might look at Haig’s delivery “somewhat patronizingly,” said Rather, but “anyone could be forgiven today in the chaos of the moment.”
Shortly thereafter, at 5:10 p.m., Rather told the nation that James Brady had died. A White House spokesman responded quickly, saying the report was false.At that point, someone at CBS should have realized Dan Rather was not fit to be the face of CBS News.
Thirty years later, having learned their lesson they...
...made the same damned mistake:
Networks in 1981 faulted “new ‘instant’ reporting” expectations for the dissemination of misinformation, writes cultural sociologist Elizabeth Butler Breese in an essay published in The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered. Thirty-five years ago, networks allowed advancements in satellite technology and the first continuous cable news channel (CNN) to push them into premature reports. Breese draws parallels between the coverage of the 1981 assassination attempt to that following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, when NPR incorrectly reported her death on air and over Twitter, sending the headline to its (then) two million followers. Taking note of the NPR tweet, CNN, the New York Times, and Fox News carried the story.Giffords lived.
What can be done to prevent this to happen again?
If CBS had fired Dan-O in 1981, it would not have had to fire him in 2005 after he lied on air for weeks on end about President Bush's military service.
Until Fake News carries consequences, expect more of it.
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