On Friday, a bunch of journalists barged inside the apartment of Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook, the deceased suspects in Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. For nearly 15 minutes, MSNBC broadcast a live feed of reporter Kerry Sanders traipsing through the apartment, picking stuff up, and describing what he was holding. Sanders wasn’t alone: The apartment was filled with camera crews and reporters from other outlets, including CNN.
“How did law enforcement fail to secure the apartment? What were the networks thinking? This seems like a pair of major institutional failures,” wrote David A. Graham for the Atlantic. “I am squeezing my brain as hard as I can, and, at the moment, I cannot think of anything like it that I’ve seen—even by the debased standards of cable TV,” wrote David Zurawik for the Baltimore Sun. The general sentiment on Twitter was that the excursion was a new low for cable news.
To be clear, cable news is almost nothing but lows. But this wasn’t one of them.
The critics are upset about three things. First, that Sanders briefly held up a California driver’s license belonging to Rafia Sultana Farook—Syed Farook’s mother—as the camera zoomed in so that all the world could see her name and address and driver’s license number. I agree that this was irresponsible. Sanders shouldn’t have grabbed it and held it up. MSNBC’s cameraman should have thought a little bit harder before broadcasting this information to the world. The producers probably should have cut away. This was not a proud moment for MSNBC.
Second, the critics are upset that the reporters may have intruded on an active crime scene. That makes little sense. Before entering the apartment, MSNBC’s Sanders announced that the authorities had already “spent a tremendous amount of time here going top to bottom, removing anything that is, first of all, evidence, and, second of all, anything that could be dangerous. And that’s why they’ve released it to the owner.” Later, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent posted on Twitter that an FBI representative had told him that “Our search is over. We released the scene yesterday,” meaning that, from the FBI’s perspective, the apartment was no longer an active crime scene. So it appears that Sanders, at least, was acting on the assumption that it was OK for him to enter the apartment. If it turns out that it wasn’t OK to do that, that’s on the authorities. It isn’t the media’s responsibility to secure a crime scene, and it certainly isn’t their responsibility to presume that a location that appears to be media-accessible is actually off-limits.
Was it invasive for the reporters to barge into a private residence and start pawing through the stuff they found there? Perhaps it wasn’t journalistically fruitful, but I don’t see a huge point in scolding them for doing so. You’re inside the apartment. There’s stuff everywhere. What were these reporters supposed to do? Shut their eyes tightly and sit on the floor while waiting for their parents to come pick them up? Go back and wait outside while every other reporter is inside the apartment? The apartment’s landlord has since claimed that the media rushed into the apartment uninvited, but that certainly wasn’t how it looked on MSNBC. In the clip that I watched, it sure looks like the landlord allowed them inside.
Finally, the critics seem annoyed that Sanders and the other reporters didn’t find much inside the apartment. And they didn’t find much, if you were expecting them to find, like, a confession written with blood on the bedroom wall or some other theatrically villainous thing. But I found the whole thing fascinating and interesting all the same. Sanders spent several minutes exploring what seems to have been the room where Malik and Farook’s 6-month-old child slept (to great comedic effect). “And you can see … we have … this is where the 6-month was. Six-month-old child. And here’s a computer. [Emits a strangled sneeze. Coughs.] I don’t actually see a whole lot of dusting here,” Sanders said.
But the incident didn’t just work as great TV. After inspecting a calendar hanging on the wall—“and it’s just a typical sort of calendar with [pause] pictures”—and examining a prayer rug, some shredded papers, “a check here from Chase to Syed Farook for $7. 98,” and a bag of mixed nuts, Sanders started rummaging through a pile of toys. “Come over here, you can see the baby’s toys. We have … uh, really, quite a number of toys,” he said as he grabbed a stuffed white bear. “There’s a teddy bear here. There’s a box here. It looks like it might have been even an unwrapped gift. Dream Eyes. Bright Dream Eyes. Bright Eyes Dreamy.” I will wager that this same detail—a box of toys in the kid’s room—will end up in some print story Friday evening or this week.
And that is how you get those details: by poking around.
Poking around and looking at stuff and drawing observations on what you find is what reporting is. I found it weird to watch Kerry Sanders hunt and peck through that apartment for 15 minutes not because it seemed so odd, but because it seemed so familiar. He was doing exactly what I would have been doing if I had been there: walking around, touching stuff, filing away details that might enliven my eventual story, trying to puzzle out what I was seeing as I was seeing it.
No, Sanders didn’t find very much. And you can certainly question MSNBC’s news judgment in choosing to stay live with Sanders for a good 15 minutes as he examined wall ornaments and shredded paper. But staying live with correspondents as they figure out what’s happening is also simply what cable news does. Broadcasting live, news-related footage is the essence of the medium. To me, the very banality of the apartment is in itself interesting and valuable, in that it provides visual evidence that these two attackers were just people who bought toys for their daughter and ate mixed nuts and had a boring floral calendar on the wall. As he held up a doll wearing a bright pink bonnet, Sanders observed that the items in the room were “not the sort of things that you would expect to find … from parents who would be so willingly able to drop their 6-month off, 6-month-old off and then … leave her and go on a … a mission of such … such horror.” I think that’s a stirring observation. By the standards of cable news, it even passes for nuance. And that’s not something to be ashamed of.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the San Bernardino, California, shooting.