Reading a Coast Guard policy review issued by Vice Admiral R.J. Papp after the Great Bang Bang Non-Incident Incident on the Potomac, one is reassured by the pragmatic approach the Coast Guard brings to its operations. This is an agency unafraid to admit mistakes – even if it’s in the form of a non-denial denial (“we did nothing wrong, but …”) – and take corrective action.
The Great Bang Bang incident was the media dust-up that occurred when the Coast Guard was engaged in some training exercises on the Potomac and CNN producers overheard on a non-secured radio the words, “Bang! Bang!” and declared, on national television, that Washington was under attack.
These were the words heard ‘round cable television.
It is still difficult for me to fathom how a guy barking into a radio can be mistaken for the percussive explosions of gunfire. Then again, I guess I’ve never been in the heat of mock battle – at least not since I was a kid. Maybe none of the folks at CNN have either.
CNN’s breathless coverage – complete with former Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend providing a play-by-play that was evidently unfolding in her head – propelled a terror-rattled nation to high alert. Planes were grounded. Secret Service eyes got more squinty. The blogosphere got more hysterical. And the rest of us started scrambling for duct tape.
Examining the Coast Guard’s in-depth review, one can’t help but conclude that this incident was largely a media invention. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of blame to go around.
For one thing, the Coast Guard External Affairs shop didn’t help itself by failing to immediately tell CNN that the activity on the Potomac was a training exercise. Instead, CNN was simply told that there was “no information regarding any incidents on the Potomac.”
Clearly, something was going on, and CNN was right to investigate.
As one reads through the Coast Guard review, however, it becomes increasingly clear that the Coast Guard Headquarters, where External Affairs is situated, simply didn’t know what was going on and was scrambling to get information. Each time they received a call from CNN – a series of exchanges took place between approximately 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. – the Coast Guard press team ran it up the command and, evidently, got no clear answer as to what was going down on the Potomac. This aspect of the Coast Guard review is vague and leaves unstated why the External Affairs team was left to, repeatedly, inform CNN only that “there were no incidents.” When you get that many calls from a national news organization, even if the media outlet is misinformed, it’s probably wise to address the misinformation as quickly as possible. Had they been able to inform CNN that the “incident” they were calling about was simply a training exercise, then that would have likely ended the matter.
Another thing that should have happened – which Admiral Papp acknowledges – was that the training exercise should have been halted as the confusion escalated. After being approached by various other law enforcement and questioned about what was going on, along with the repeated calls from news outlets, the Coast Guard had grounds to stand down.
That said, CNN had no credible evidence to go live with reports that some kind of confrontation was taking place on the Potomac – implying terrorist activity in the vicinity of the Pentagon, where the President just happened to be speaking. Their cameras were picking up evidence of Coast Guard activity, clearly, and they were hearing some weird things on the radio, but there was a time when national media organizations confirmed their facts before running with a story, particularly one with such potential for causing panic and alarm. For heaven’s sakes, when did CNN hire Orson Welles?
One suspects that – in this age of dropping market share and fierce competition from the Internet – the days of confirming facts before running with a story are over. Which makes all the more ironic the righteous whining you hear from traditional reporters about how they are the only ones who provide good, fact-based journalism and that without them, by god, the blogosphere will ruin the news industry, and democracy as we know it will limp forward in ignorance and partisanship. Uh-huh. No more Dick Nixons to kick around and all that.
There is one unintentionally funny line in the Coast Guard review, in which the Admiral asserts that “at no point during the training were the boat crews seeking media attention.” Clearly the Press Secretary didn’t write this memo. Boats with big guns in the perimeter of the White House, Pentagon and Congress don’t have to go looking for media coverage, and the Coast Guard should be more prepared to expect such attention in the future.
And, to their credit, they are.
The policy reforms suggested by Admiral Papp, now being reviewed by the chain of command, include a number of steps to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future. Among those recommendations are some operational reforms, such as using training disclaimers that the general public (and eavesdropping reporters) can understand. He suggests: “This is a drill, this is a drill.” (Here’s one I might recommend: “Bang bang is a verbal approximation of actual gunfire, but it’s not real. It’s just me, some guy, shouting bang bang. My voice is not a gun; I repeat, my voice is not a gun.)
Another good recommendation offered in the memo is to provide a schedule of training exercises to other law enforcement with local jurisdiction.
However, as this was largely a media mess, the recommendations to strengthen the public affairs environment are of particular merit. These recommendations include developing an “active and aggressive” outreach plan to better inform the public and media about such training incidents; informing the media that Headquarters is a better source for policy questions, while the local commands in the field should be contacted for questions about tactical operations; educating reporters on how to contact those local field units; and training Coast Guard field units to more pro-actively reach out to media unless questions turn to policy issues.
Along with instituting a better chain of communication between Headquarters External Affairs and local field units – for those media calls that will inevitably come to Headquarters no matter how hard the Coast Guard tries to direct reporters to the field – these reforms will go a long way toward preventing another all-too-real crisis resulting from a mere training procedure. It will also go quite a ways toward improving the communications environment during legitimate crisis situations.
The Coast Guard deserves kudos for adapting to the new pressures of this new and evolving media environment.
Don’t count on CNN to be as adaptive or to initiate any reforms. The only responsibility its producers have taken for what occurred is to point fingers at the Coast Guard.
Chris Battle is the former Chief of Staff for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Director of Congressional and Public Affairs for the DEA. He is the Managing Partner of Adfero Group’s Homeland Security Strategic Communications Practice.