Guest Column: Dear CNN: It’s OK to say, ‘We don’t know’

John Kass

Here’s an idea for CNN, Fox News and all the other TV news shops running those ominous crawl lines under their breathless broadcasts of the Boston Marathon bombings.

I’m talking about those infuriating headlines that crawl across the bottom of the screen and tease upcoming news. Some networks run icy white letters in their crawls. Fox runs yellow letters, the color of warning. But I was watching CNN last Wednesday. And that network delivers its crawl on a bed of blazing, ill-omened red.

Around midday, CNN trumpeted the news that a bombing suspect had been arrested — a “dark-skinned male.” It later corrected itself and reported that in fact there was no such arrest. Pretty darn embarrassing.So here’s the plan. Instead of running crawls that drip with menacing crimson imperative, maybe CNN should try something like this when there’s nothing new to report about what happened in Boston:… WE WANT TO TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENED, BUT GUESS WHAT? … WE JUST DON’T KNOW YET. . WE DON’T HAVE THE FACTS … WE DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW IF THE BOMBER IS A DARK-SKINNED MALE … YEAH, WE SAID IT ON THE AIR, BUT, WHAT THE HECK? … IT COULD BE A WHITE MAN … SOME GUY TOLD US ABOUT ‘THE DARK-SKINNED MALE’ AND, WELL, OOPS … OUR BAD. … FOR NOW, WE JUST DON’T KNOW … REPEAT … WE JUST DON’T KNOW … WHEN WE DO HAVE FACTS … WHEN WE KNOW … WE’LL TELL YOU … REALLY … UNTIL THEN … WE JUST DON’T KNOW … WE JUST DON’T … KNOW.Wouldn’t it be nice? It would be refreshing. There’s a certain truthiness about it, no?

I can’t speak for the TV networks. I’m a newspaperman. And newspaper editors love it when reporters bring them hot news. Yet there are eight little words that the best newspaper editors also like:

I just don’t know. But I’ll find out.

Those words aren’t easy to say, especially when there’s a big story and the competition is boiling like a piranha tank. And in the news business lately, with all the changes going on, such as integration with the Internet and video and tweets and 24-hour news cycles, it seems that we’re not only competing against credible and incredible news shops, it seems that we’re fighting for our lives.

So with that pressure, it’s difficult to say, “I just don’t know.”

Sometimes young reporters think they’ve failed when they say it. But I’ve seen editors, the good ones, give each other a look when they hear it. And in that look, they’re making a mental note that says: I just might be able to trust this kid.Picking on TV news shops may be seen by some as cruel, like picking the wings off flies. Mistakes happen. I know it. I’ve made my share.But the Boston bombings were horrific. The death and the carnage were horrific. People want to know what happened. And rushing to blurt out inaccurate information because the other guys may have something juicy is disreputable. It’s worthy of a Moutza.Watching TV news during the day is something I rarely do, because I’m usually out reporting or having lunch or sitting in my office reading deep journals about baseball or soccer. If the office TV is on, it usually shows highly paid men kicking, hitting, dribbling or running with a ball. Or fishing. Sometimes I’ll watch CBS’ “The Good Wife,” my columnist resource for deep legal and political insight and attractive women of a certain age in great suits.Mostly, though, the office TV is off.But I happened to be home at midday and turned on the tube to check the Boston bombing story. What bothered me was the volume. The newscasters’ voices were loud and full of freaky urgency. In addition to erroneously reporting an arrest, CNN also made the misjudgment of focusing on the alleged skin color of the alleged suspect.”I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things,” said CNN’s John King during a report. “I was told by one of these sources, who is a law enforcement official, that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words, I’m not going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people that will take offense even at saying that.”But there was no arrest. And what does skin have to do with it?CNN wasn’t the only violator. Fox said there was an arrest and also had to back off.We pundits aren’t exempt either. Those representing the political left and the right have been circling this story, too, with some on the left clearly hoping the suspects turn out to be anti-tax libertarians, and some on the right hoping the suspects turn out to be foreign extremists. Each side is ready to pounce. David Axelrod, the president’s political brain, offers us an example of the technique.”I’m sure what was going through the president’s mind is — we really don’t know who did this. It was Tax Day. Is it someone who was pro-,” said Axelrod on MSNBC, stopping at the edge. “You just don’t know. And so, I think, his attitude is: Let’s not put any inference into this. Let’s just make clear that we’re going to get the people responsible.”That was expertly and deliciously done — Axelrod dropping the inference about those opposed to tax increases, then admonishing those who’d infer anything until we know the facts. And such is the craft of a master.But back to CNN. After doing the dark-skinned man report, they truly should reform themselves and offer a new series of crawls:… WHEN FACTS COME IN, WE’LL SAY SOMETHING … DON’T WORRY … FACTS WILL COME … REALLY THEY WILL … BUT FOR NOW, WE JUST DON’T KNOW.John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.