If It Bleeds, It Leads


11SEP09 – Friday morning. I woke up, felt like crap.  Texted my co-worker: “Whatever I have is in full swing. See you Monday.”  Went back to sleep.  A short time later, my phone chirped again with an incoming text from my roommate here at the Department of Awesome, one which opened a whole can of worms.

“Suspicious vessel in the Potomac. WTF, over?”  I stumbled into the living room and fired up my computer, swiping a cheese stick from the fridge while I waited for our sucktastic intertubes connection to kick in.  (*If all quality internet service providers lived together in peace and harmony in a special heat-proof facility on the sun, Comcast would maintain their headquarters on Pluto. Fail, bitches.)

“SUSPICIOUS VESSEL IN DC, Coast Guard fires on boat on Potomac River,” read CNN’s “breaking news” headline at 10:05 a.m.  Jumping Jesus!  Here we go again.  And just the other day, I was thinking that it’d be nice if the current administration were able to say something like, “The danger has passed.  We’re here to protect you, we’re doing our best, and we will remain vigilant.  But we’re de-escalating the threat level.  Please, go about the business of living your lives.”  After all, we’ve been in fight-or-flight for eight years.  Think about how many people are probably watching this right now, and getting the shakes.

But by 10:29, the “crisis” had begun to evaporate like car exhaust on a cold morning.  CNN quoted two “unidentified sources” as saying the incident had been a “possible” Coast Guard training exercise.  Of course it was!  No shots were ever fired, merely described on a radio scanner.  The whole thing had been a large scale game of Telegraph, albeit poorly timed.  What spurred CNN into “action mode” were realistic-sounding radio transmissions from the Coast Guard as it conducted a routine drill.  (“We have expended 10 rounds,” according to those huddled around a scanner in the CNN ready room.)  Did they happen to catch the broadcast from the beginning?  There was no mention of this, but if they did they’d probably have heard the words, “This is a drill, this is a drill,” repeated several times.  It’s part of a standard operating procedure somewhere.  I’d bet lunch on it.

But we’ll get back to that in a second.

I don’t usually talk news or current events on this blog, because I like to keep my professional and private lives at arm’s length from one another.  But I’ve got a few questions of my own, and since the topic is nearly dead at this point, I guess it won’t hurt to ask ’em.

Question 1: Where was the camera positioned?  The correspondent stated twice that the perspective was “FROM the Pentagon…” Well, the Pentagon is located west of that vantage point (see image), not parallel to the bridges, and some distance away through trees and a small marina, if I’m not mistaken.  I see two bridges; one at the top and the other directly at the bottom of my screen.  Not a big issue, just curious.  We’ll chalk it up as -5, error in fact.  After all, it’s not unheard of for the Pentagon to have a remote tower camera for security.

Question 2: The correspondent incorrectly identified a slow-flying HH-65, the Coast Guards bread and butter bird, as a ‘media crew,’ despite the words “Coast” followed by “Guard” painted across the side of it.  The helo makes a slow pass, right heading left.

OK.  Even though the video was in black and white, AND at a poor resolution, and even if the words weren’t that clear, the ’65 has a very distinctive shape and an enclosed tail rotor, vastly different from your standard bubble nosed eye-in-the-sky. And if this was media, wouldn’t they be feeding better footage or commentary to CNN in hopes of an affiliate mention?  Survey says, “Yes.”  I’ll chalk this up to battle blindness and subject unfamiliarity – an anchorperson too focused on filling the air, trying to make sense of a panicky situation and no intel, ever conscious of the cameras and microphones being trained on them, with viewers and ratings hanging on their every word.  Dead air is bad air.  Everyone knows that. “Keep talking!  Maybe I’ll say something smart!”

Question 3: Back to the scanner.  Did those listening to the drill hear the ENTIRE exercise, or did they tune in halfway through?  They probably missed the all-important “exercise” preface, unless they knew to tune in ahead of time.  (Again, “exercise” should have been repeated each time a transmission was made.)  But how could they listen to this broadcast or watch the video, and not get the impression that something wasn’t quite right?

We’ve all seen spy thrillers and war flicks at the movies or watched them on television, right?  Hollywood hires former military members as creative consultants to make sure that the stuff being churned out looks, smells and behaves like the real thing.  (This applies to all manner of programs, CSI, Law & Order, 24, and so on.)  As a result, we’re all subconsciously aware of how a military or tactical operation should look and sound.  See what I’m getting at?  We’re all mock experts.  We can talk the talk, even if we don’t walk the walk.  Which brings me to…

Question 4: If you watch the footage, it’s largely evident that this WAS a training exercise, although again, perhaps not to the trained eye.  One of the boats can be seen moving toward the stationary vessel, holding station (i.e., staying in place), then speeding away and conducting a few high speed, almost “playful” turns… which looks kinda like a coxswain break-in to me.  By that, I mean someone in a continuous training process of learning how to drive the boat, getting a feel for the controls of this multi-million dollar hot-rod.  If it were a real engagement, a true threat, wouldn’t those high-speed orange peels have maintained a fixed position around the hostile or suspect vessel, guns at the ready, awaiting instruction?  What tactical purpose would darting back and forth and doing donuts really serve?  Answer: none.  Hey, maybe I’m wrong.  But again, it’s another clue to observers that this was a DRILL.  Which brings me to…

Question 5: Why should the Coast Guard have to notify the media each and every time they’re gonna to do a training exercise?  (Even as I type this, 1145 EST, I can promise you that somewhere, out there, a Coast Guard station or asset is conducting a drill.  It’s almost inconceivable that they aren’t performing some sort of emergency response practice: BECCE’s (Basic Engineering Casualty Control Exercise), man overboard drills, fire-fighting drills, etc.)

Now, if the CG did notify the media of each and every training exercise they planned, wouldn’t the beat reporter, newsroom editor, or camera crew get sick of fielding those calls and eventually ask the Coast Guard to call them back when something big happened?  I think so.  Think about how sick and tired we’d all get of hearing about them?  And, like ripples in a pond, think about how that could exponentially impact the news and spillover into public commentary?  “Well, I think they shouldn’t drill so much, they’re wasting tax dollars/fuel/frightening endangered ducks/polluting the air…”

And, tactically speaking, would the Coast Guard really WANT their tactics described in detail to the American viewer?  Survey says: “Probably not.”  Some of those tactics are law enforcement in nature, I’m sure.  There’s ‘Right to Know’, and then there’s ‘Need to Know.’  Always has been, always will be.  Accusations of liberal media have absolutely fuck all to do with this.  Look, I’m as Green and crunchy as they come, and even I support the right to keep quiet.  You don’t win a poker game by showing everyone your hand:

“May I have your attention please?  As you can see, I’ve got two aces, a five of hearts and a queen of clubs.  Now, I’m gonna discard these cards here (points, shows cards), and draw two more from the pile- that is, if, through a process of long-term discussion seven part discussion and a lengthy and complicated voting process, you all agree that I should do this, because, you know, you’re the taxpayer and you have a right to full disclosure…”  We’d gum the works quicker than shit, and get very little done.

Question 6: (more of an opinion, really)  Every day, the Coast Guard patrols the seas and rivers, listening for mariners in peril.  They do a lot more than that, actually, but I’ll stick to life-saving.  Twenty-four seven, three hundred and sixty-five days out of the year, I can promise you that someone in blue is listening to a VHF radio, ears peeled for faint cries of “Mayday, mayday!”  And because of that, every day a wife gets her husband back, children get their father back, and good friends have the opportunity to come sauntering into their favorite watering hole for strong drinks and relieved merriment. “Hey, look everyone, Bob’s back!  We were so worried!”  Sure, Bob will die someday. But not today.  Not yet.

I don’t know who to direct this to, so I’m just gonna say…

Dear CNN: Total strangers are alive to see the sunrise because of this organization’s long-standing dedication to the preservation human life, and the safety of life at sea.  Period, end of sentence.  This organization’s motto was, at one time: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”  They put themselves in harm’s way, day in, day out, for STRANGERS, just like you.  They venture into the nastiest of storms and voluntarily brave a list of dangerous conditions as long as my arm – and you have the nerve to call them on the carpet over a training exercise?  “Felony stupidity,” was the expression that set my teeth grinding.

Fuck you, CNN.  That’s like buying the best guard dog money can buy, and telling it to shut up when it keeps you awake at night.

I know this is wrong of me to even think, but I can’t help wondering if maybe you, or perhaps a member of your news organization, own a boat.  Let’s say you do.  And let’s further postulate that one of these days, maybe your entire family will be aboard for a day of fun in the sun.  Buddy, sis, the wifey, and grandma.  Good times!  Now, maybe – probably – the weather will turn nasty.  Suppose the engine conks out, or worse, catches fire.  Uh, oh!  Or maybe your GPS goes toes up, your anchor malfunctions and you find yourself drifting blind in the fog, edging ever closer to the shipping lanes frequented by much, much larger ships.  What if, in all the stress, your grandmother suffers a heart attack?  Think about that for a moment.  Who ya gonna call?  (Hint: it’s not Ghostbusters.)

Or hey, maybe you’ll be stranded in a post-hurricane city overcome by fear, flooding and madness, without food, water or FEMA, and as the waters rise, trapping you in your sweltering attic with nowhere left to swim, you find yourself thinking that this is the moment of your death…

Wait!  What’s that sound?  What’s that bright orange helicopter doing?  Do they see you? Yes!  How can you tell?  Because they’re chopping a hole in your roof to get you out!  “Thank fuck, it’s the Coast Guard.  We’re going home..!”

“Felony stupidity” will sound pretty foolish then.  Am I right, jackass?  Anything for ratings, anything for the scoop.  Is that how it works?

As a friend of mine said recently, “The media machine has an insatiable appetite.  If it runs short on food, it will eat anything.  Try not to look like a steak when it happens.”



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