Shortly after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s announced that the grand jury had decided against indicting Darren Wilson, CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin provided what would prove to be the best insight from the network all night.* “Let’s see what the evidence says,” Toobin said, a reference to CNN’s promise to dive into the massive trove of testimony and other evidence that McCulloch was making public.
It would take roughly two hours before CNN would talk about that evidence in any detail—and then they did so only in passing. In the meantime, the network would provide wall-to-wall coverage of the reactions on the ground in Ferguson. (During President Obama’s late-night statement to the nation, CNN even ran a split-screen with images of the unrest.) In the process, their cameras captured the first clashes between sometimes-violent protesters and a police force that appeared quick to use tear gas to crack down on many peaceful demonstrators.
The images were powerful and important. Unfortunately, though, they were not all that informative, because the live shots were accompanied with on-air reporting from the ground that was occasionally contradictory, often confusing, and, whenever possible, self-referential. It’s true that, as has been the case since the protests over Michael Brown’s killing started, reporters did become part of the story at certain points. Early on Tuesday, CNN reporter Sara Sidner appeared to be hit with a rock live on the air. But aside from that one incident, there was little that justified CNN’s egocentric coverage.
On-camera interviews with protesters or community leaders were scarce at best, as was confirmation of many of the rumors that were mentioned on air, ranging from anecdotes about gunshots to one about a protester reportedly having a heart attack.
In their stead were a half-dozen CNN reporters wandering the streets, recounting what was personally happening to them and their colleagues. Among the many exchanges between the CNN contributors was Van Jones and Don Lemon talking about the latter’s gas mask not being on tight enough, and reporters warning other reporters to stay safe. Jake Tapper, clad in a CNN jacket, narrated as he walked toward a flaming trashcan to confirm that it was, in fact, a flaming trashcan. Earlier in the night, Lemon delivered this gem to the audience at home: "Obviously there is the smell of marijuana in the air as well."
Wolf Blitzer set the tone even before the grand jury's announcement was official. The CNN anchor went to great lengths Monday evening to point out that his network had reported that a decision had been reached before officials had alerted Michael Brown's family. The reason for Blitzer's boasting? He was interviewing the family's lawyer.
The network would show more than an hour’s worth of on-the-ground coverage from their team before Anderson Cooper would finally alert viewers that it was not all of Ferguson that was burning, but only a small section of it. “I do think it’s important to put this into some context,” Cooper told viewers who had gone without it until then. “What we’re talking about—what you’re seeing, the images—are from a relatively isolated and limited location. We’re talking about a several block area.”
“Elsewhere things are calm, people are at their homes,” Cooper would go on to conclude. “Many people are just watching this on television.” Given that's the case both in Ferguson and outside of it, let's hope CNN has better luck in the coming days finding a way to talk about what's happening on the ground without talking about themselves.
*Correction, Nov. 25, 2014: This post originally misspelled the name of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch.