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False media reports on Coast Guard gunfire raise concerns

CNN reported a boat confrontation near the Pentagon, where Obama was attending a 9/11 memorial. It was later clarified as a training exercise.

September 12, 2009|Joe Markman and Matea Gold

WASHINGTON AND NEW YORK — Initial reports of shots being fired during a Coast Guard exercise near the route of President Obama's motorcade Friday afternoon proved false, raising questions about how the media and the military handled the incident.

The exercise, which the Coast Guard said was routine and planned in advance, occurred on the Potomac River near the Pentagon, where Obama attended a memorial for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

CNN and Fox began reporting that the Coast Guard had opened fire on a suspicious vessel. CNN reported on its breaking-news Twitter feed: "Coast Guard confronts boat as Obama visits Pentagon, police scanner reports say shots fired."

It took the network almost 30 minutes to get clarification and report that the boats were merely in a training exercise.

"The higher the stakes, the more careful you have to be to make sure you are correct," said Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University's College of Communication. "Unfortunately, this is one of those examples of ready-fire-aim journalism."

The false reports of gunfire were based on radio calls in which Coast Guard personnel imitated "bang bang" noises, agency spokeswoman Lt. Nadine Santiago said.

Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism center, said: "It's a really dangerous practice to use radio traffic as your principal source of information, because it so often turns out to be incorrect."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs also rebuked CNN for not confirming its information.

"Before we report things like this, checking would be good," Gibbs said.

CNN defended its reporting, saying in a statement that the network had aired the story after observing the maneuvers of Coast Guard vessels on the river and hearing a radio transmission in which someone said: "We have expended 10 rounds."

Before reporting the incident, CNN said, it contacted the Coast Guard public affairs office. A Coast Guard spokeswoman said she was unaware of any activity on the river, CNN said.

Frances Fragos Townsend, a former Homeland Security advisor to President George W. Bush and a frequent contributor to CNN, said in an interview that if the Coast Guard had not bungled its responsibility to communicate with other agencies and the public, the incident could have been avoided.

"It's incumbent on the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security to inform people, " Townsend said.

The Coast Guard said it was not required to tell any federal or local agencies about the exercise in advance.

Security consultant and former Secret Service agent Ron Williams also criticized the Coast Guard's lack of interagency communication. He said that though there was no danger of the Secret Service overreacting, such a breakdown was appalling, especially on Sept. 11.

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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