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CNN Under Microscope for Boston Marathon Flubs

Cabler stumbles amid rush to claim 'exclusive' breaking news on investigation

There has been a lot of bad, premature, jump-the-gun, alarmist, report-first-sort-out-the-damage-later reporting in the few days since the bomb blasts that rocked the Boston Marathon. Heck, the New York Post alone has done enough to provoke its own The Onion parody.

Still, it’s CNN that is in the midst of breaking in new management, CNN that is quite publicly going through a reexamination of its priorities as the network tries to compete more effectively for viewers, and CNN that spent much of Wednesday stepping all over itself, breaking – and then back-pedaling from – an “exclusive” about an arrest in the case.

To be fair, as I noted in a column earlier this week, TV is an incredibly imperfect medium in which to cover such events in real time. Having hours of time to fill invites speculation, amid the endlessly recapping of what little we currently know.

Even so, situated between two cable competitors that have gravitated toward ideological poles, CNN has one clear attribute with which to distinguish itself – namely, credibility. And exhibiting what in hindsight looks like a cavalier approach toward getting it right, as opposed to just being first, seriously undermines that claim, as does setting the network up as such a ripe object of ridicule for “The Daily Show,” where host Jon Stewart (see the video) pilloried the channel’s John King for getting it “completely f—king wrong.”

If CNN came away from that drubbing chastened, it wasn’t entirely evident Thursday, as anchor Wolf Blitzer — anxiously waiting for a once-delayed press conference to start — said of the FBI agent in charge, “We anticipate … he obviously has something important to say.” More reporting, less “anticipating,” please. (The FBI did identify two suspects with grainy photos shortly thereafter.)

Frankly, with so many conflicting reports from different sources about the Boston investigation, it will likely take days or even weeks before we have a clearer picture, and it’s certainly possible CNN or some of these other outlets that have apparently jumped the gun could be partially vindicated. Law-enforcement authorities aren’t above playing coy or planting misleading comments if they think it will assist them.

For now, though, CNN appears to have conspicuously flunked one of its early tests, raising questions about whether reporters (especially those who new chief Jeff Zucker inherited) were too eager to impress the latest regime, or perhaps feeling heat to pull the trigger.

Unlike CNN on Wednesday, I won’t publicly try to guess at an answer.

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