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NPR Plays Blame Game and Misses Real Story

There is an interesting story on NPR's website this morning headlined, "How Media Coverage Crimped the Times Square Case."

I read the story three times, and bits and pieces of it over and over again, and wonder why in the world NPR decided to put that headline on Dina Temple-Raston's accounting of the behind-the-scenes maneuverings between law-enforcement officials and the press in the hours and days after the smoking SUV was discovered in Times Square.

The headline would have been more accurate had it said, "How Law Enforcement Crimped the Times Square Case."

Frankly, the best headline would have been: "Loose Lips Sink Ships, and Thankfully, Stupid Terrorists."

On one hand, Temple-Raston alleges that because of a "professional rivalry" between the investigating agencies in this case, the FBI and the NYPD were leaking information to the press in a steady stream to make the other look bad.

After telling us about all this abnormal leaking, Temple-Raston switches to the other hand and types this:

"Details about the Times Square investigation were all over the local newspapers, even as authorities were still trying to puzzle out who was responsible. Any element of surprise that law enforcement might have had was evaporating."

So because law enforcement agencies were chirping like canaries in order to misguidedly one-up each other, accounts of the investigation were being reported by the media at a furious pace to the public.

But then she typed this:

"To be fair, law enforcement was partly to blame."

Partly to blame?!

If what Temple-Raston alleges in the first place is true, and this toxic relationship between the NYPD and the FBI resulted in inappropriate facts about the case coming forward, then they are a heckuva lot more than "partly to blame."

Further, that looks like one great follow-up story to me. If the FBI and local authorities really aren't able to work together in a collegial manner, it could present a threat to national security.

Temple-Raston goes on:

"In many cases, it (law enforcement) was the source of the information and leaks. But there seemed to be an extra level of frustration about the leaks in this case. As one law enforcement official told NPR, "Our operational plans were being driven by the media, instead of the other way around. And that's not good."

No, I suppose, it's not, but I wonder where this unnamed law enforcement official might have assigned blame? Does it not stand to reason that if the FBI and NYPD had not acted as Temple-Raston alleges, the media, in fact, would not have driven operational plans?

Holding the press accountable for the way it conducts itself is all well and good, but it seems like Temple-Raston wants it both ways here, and I'm not sure why.

The relationship between the press and law enforcement is an uneasy one. There will always be leaks, and misinformation. It can be a dangerous game.

First, a press organization must determine if the information that is leaked is even accurate. There are times when law enforcement officials will leak bogus information to either throw the press off its tail, or in the hope that if it is actually reported, will send misinformation to the perpetrator of the crime.

There is also a very fine, undefinable line between what should be reported to the public and what shouldn't. One of the most delicate decisions a news organization faces is when it is given, or comes upon, information that could potentially jeopardize an investigation if reported.

That media agent is then faced with deciding between the public's right to know, and law enforcement's concern that the information coming forward could damage its investigation.

I know that when I was faced with this dilemma, there were times I would tell the authority not to give me the information unless there was a clear understanding up front that I was going to use it.

It's interesting, then, that Raston types of just such an instance in which NPR (appropriately in my opinion) did not reveal to its audience "that law enforcement officials were looking for an American citizen of Pakistani descent from Shelton, Conn.," even though they had that information.

Raston doesn't say how NPR came upon that information, but does tell us that another news organization decided to report it.

Again, it's strictly a judgment call.

What isn't, is that had Faisal Shahzad eluded capture, blaming the media would have been the second crime committed in this case.

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)