The Public Eye Chat With...Bob Orr
It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the latest installment of the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is correspondent Bob Orr, who was recently announced as CBS News' new Justice Department correspondent. Until now, he's been covering transportation and Homeland Security issues. In our conversation, Orr discusses the effects of over-hyping terrorism stories, why we don't hear much about transportation safety anymore and how he's going to approach his new beat. Excerpts are below and you can listen to the entire interview by clicking below.
We've had a number of conversations about over-hyping coverage with regard to transportation issues or homeland security issues. When we spoke to you about covering the transatlantic terror plot, you had said: "The facts have to rule. We can't get outside the facts. That said, you know up front that terrorism is a scary topic … and terrorism and aviation is even more frightening to most people. You don't want to sugar coat it … but we also have a responsibility not to hype it."
to listen to the interview.
We later spoke again about another story – or kind of a non-story—about possible threats to NFL stadiums, which you said that many in the media did over-hype. What do you think is the overall affect for news consumers when this kind of thing perpetuates, in terms of their view of the media?
I think the problem for news consumers is that we're confusing them … when I say "we" I mean the media as a whole. We're throwing a lot of information at people often without proper context, often without perspective and we're essentially saying, "Here, this is what we know so far, figure it out." I think that's a disservice. You have to find a sensible middle ground, somewhere between giving people a timely notification and giving them some really useful information. I don't know that anybody is well served by trotting out this raw, unvetted, uncorroborated information with no context, because what are they supposed to do about it? What are they supposed to make of it?In conversations that you've had with people in Homeland Security, do they have the perception that the media tends over-hype these issues? Does it tend to affect the way that you are able to cover the story or get information?
I think post-9/11, there is considerable concern -- and it's justified -- about terrorism. People are afraid. I think even some of the officials are afraid of what they don't know. So we have to go at this very seriously knowing that the terrorist want to harm us, that they are insidious in their methods and there is nothing that they won't try. So that's the backdrop.
The other side of it is that there have been a number of protections in place and on top of that, vigilance has come up tenfold. People are so much more aware. I don't mean just the government and just the police but everyone is so much more aware of everything going on around them.
So I think it's our job to try to find an accurate middle ground in a timely way that tells people what we do know and also explains what we don't know so that they can judge whether or not this is something they need to take action on. Because after all, that's what news consumers do, they take in the information and then they decide how it affects them. And that's a tough job. And I think sometimes we do it well as an industry and sometimes I think we fall short of it. And sometimes we let deadlines and the need for immediacy cloud our ability or our judgment to go a little slower and get it a little more correct. Because I really think accuracy has to rule. The facts and accuracy have to be the trump cards.
I think there are some people in the government that feel that the media is knee jerk and irresponsible, but at the same time, let's be straight. There are some people in various agencies that hype things themselves, [distribute] information that maybe is incomplete at best.How much did you know about the [transportation] industry when you started? What was the learning curve there?
Then, on top of that, these agencies have a vested interest in spinning information in the most favorable way to them. Law enforcement or security officials don't want to come out with information that makes them look inept or late or behind the curve. So that's another problem and another filter that you have to put on the information -- what's the agenda? Are we being spun here by the authorities? And it sounds cynical, but I think it's just real, that you can't just take everything at face value.
Frankly, [I knew] very little. It was a very big learning curve. Transportation … everybody does it, very few people understand it. And for the first several years, our primary focus was transportation safety. And that's still a really critically important area. I mean, 40,000 people die every year on highways, still.It obviously took a big turn after 9/11. Was that when you took on Homeland Security?
Fortunately, we haven't had major airplane crashes recently. The industry has gotten significantly safer. I mean, I almost hesitate to bring that up, but there have been great safety improvements. So starting out on the beat, I had to learn a lot of things that I had no idea about. The technology, how systems work, how airplanes work and how they fail, how people interact with machines, and how that's very complicated.
There's a heavy emphasis on training and I always felt -- still do -- like I was going to school … that I had not prepared myself in any way for that kind of technical challenge. Because it's a very technical beat, or can be. And that makes it intimidating.
Yes, because 9/11 involved airplanes, much of the early reporting on that revolved around "where did the planes come from how did the guys get control of the planes?" -- all the little facts that were really important in a real-time situation in trying to understand how this attack unfolded.
So, because 9/11 involved airplanes, I was drawn into that probably in a bigger way than I might otherwise have been. Everybody was all hands on deck, so everyone was involved and I would have been as well but I got more heavily involved.
When the dust settled and when the government tried to figure out how it wanted to proceed with domestic terrorism countermeasures, we had a robust debate here about how we should best cover that. Was it a defense issue that maybe should go to the Pentagon? Was it a criminal issue that should go under the umbrella of Justice? Different organizations arrived at different solutions.
We decided – well, the company decided -- that I would expand transportation to include transportation security. And the bulk of what Homeland was charged with doing revolved all around transportation security, so in that sense I kind of adopted Homeland Security when that bureaucracy was born. And since 9/11, I think it's a fair point to say that most of the reporting done by all media involving transportation involves security and not safety. We used to do a lot of stories about consumer safety and frankly, we've probably been lax in not keeping that a bigger priority than it is. But security seemed to trump safety more often than not.
I'll give you an example. When the crash of American Flight 587 happened in November of 2001 … it was the second worst airplane accident in the history of the United States -- the second deadliest crash …. Yet, the only question that anybody was asking at the time -- and I throw myself into the mix – was, "was this terrorism?"
… Even a layman investigator like myself looking at the pictures concluded pretty quickly that this was not terrorism. The plane broke in a way that was not consistent with a bomb or some kind of missile or sabotage. The tail broke off. And it obviously was the result of structural forces. I could see that and the investigators could see that, so we knew fairly quickly that this was not terrorism.
Now, did that mean that it wasn't a huge story? Well, my memory is (and I'm probably wrong) but around 260 plus people were killed in that incident -- some on the ground, most on the plane. The only deadlier crash happened a couple decades ago in Chicago-- a DC-10 went down in O'Hare -- so from an aviation crash standpoint, this was an enormous event – the deadliest crash we'd had in over 20 years -- deadlier than TWA 800.
Yet, it really was only on the news for about three days. Because the whole paradigm had shifted. Once we had answered … the most frightening question -- was this deliberate? was this terrorism? -- to be honest with you, the interest among newspapers and television networks really waned. By contrast, in 1996, [after] TWA 800, we reported on that story, robustly, for four years and did something like 40-50 "Evening News" stories and countless morning news pieces.
So that's just an example of how the whole paradigm shifted and I don't think it's ever going to go back in the other direction. Still, the first question people ask when we have an accident, whether it involves an airplane or a train or a transit system of some kind is "is this terrorism?" -- because that's the way we think now.
And I can defend that because I almost think that is the appropriate first question: Is this an attack … or is this just some unfortunate accident? And then once we learn it's an accident, that is incumbent on all of us to ask all the necessary questions to find out what happened, so that it doesn't happen again. But definitely terrorism and security is the first point.