Saturday, September 12, 2009

Terror(?) on the Potomac

Yesterday, September 11, at about 9:30 AM, CNN breathlessly reported that Coast Guard boats and a helicopter were apparently confronting a suspicious vessel in the security area of the Potomac River, near where the President was commemorating 9/11 at the Pentagon. The reports escalated -- the vessel had been fired upon. Cable news and the Internet picked up the story.

It was a training exercise.

Let the finger-pointing begin. CNN reported an interpretation of what they heard over a scanner picking up the Coast Guard radio traffic, but apparently didn't think it odd that the report of gun fire began with the radio transmission, "bang bang bang bang." They say they called the Coast Guard and were told they were not aware of anything going on on the Potomac. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard says that they never coordinate their training exercises with other agencies, and they train like this all the time.

So what went wrong? If training exercises like this one are commonplace in that area, why did this one make national news? I bet you already know part of the answer. It was September 11. And yes, that matters, and no, it's not because we're all crazy.

The date itself -- September 11 -- is a trigger for most people in this country. The various commemorations on the news heighten that. And that's not a bad thing, necessarily. But it means we are all in a space where we are much more willing to believe that terrorists will attack the US. Most days we know it's a possibility, but on September 11 it feels like a likelihood. This exercise, and what CNN heard over the scanners, was therefore much more believable, and the lack of confirmation was less troubling. It might have been a good idea if the Coast Guard had considered this and announced the exercise, or held it on another day, or at least made sure it's own people could tell the press what was going on. There are two sides to every coin, though, and CNN should probably have known that both they and their viewers were more willing to believe the worst and more prone to panic yesterday than, say, the day before.

It's interesting to consider how long it will be before we are not so triggered by September 11. I see signs that it is fading already: A few years ago I was lambasted for holding a fire drill on that date. We had one yesterday, and no one said a thing. The edge has, at least a little, been taken off. But not so much that everyone can not worry about the impact of anti-terror exercises and erroneous news reports.


Anonymous said...

CNN blames the Coast Guard on this and says it would be irresponsible not to report the event as they did. I'm a journalist and disagree. CNN could easily have reported that an event of unknown significance was occurring and could have aired the audio they captured from their scanner and said "we don't know anything more than this". They also could have said they contacted the Coast Guard, which had no further information on the event at this time.

But, instead of reporting what it could confirm to be true, CNN went further and said "shots were fired".

It's all part of trying to get the story first, instead of trying to get the most accurate story first.

Who's to blame for the hysteria that resulted? CNN. Not the Coast Guard. Here's an example: Let's say the Revolutionary War is over. People are still afraid of the British. Winter is colder than usual. I decide to sew myself a beautiful warm red coat. I walk downtown. Someone sees me and screams, "The redcoats are coming!" And chaos and fear sweeps across town.

Who made the biggest mistake? Me, for wearing a red coat? Or the idiot who didn't talk to me and broadcast to the masses that the feared British had returned to kill us?

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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