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CNN’s Jake Tapper On The Navy Yard Shooting And Outcomes-Based Journalism

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HH: I’m joined now by Jake Tapper, host of CNN’s The Lead, who’s done absolutely terrific reporting from the scene or close as close to the scene as media was allowed over the last couple of days. Jake Tapper, welcome, it’s good to have you.

JT: It’s always good to be with you, Hugh. One of the Navy guys that I met yesterday only knew me through appearing on your radio show, as if I don’t exist anywhere else.

HH: He doesn’t watch The Lead. He’s probably working in the afternoon, and they have to replay The Lead at night, Jake. You have to tell people that. Your interview with Shawn Henry today was fascinating. I don’t know how you managed to get the former assistant director of the FBI for the Washington area field office, but he is a top drawer guest. And for people who didn’t see it, tell them what he told you about what the FBI does next.

JT: Well, I mean, what was really interesting is a source that told me that the FBI has already gone back ten years into the past of Aaron Alexis at a place he worked in New York City. And they are looking into everything they can about this man, about the killer, just to make sure that they understand everything before they close the book. Obviously, they’ve just opened the book, because you know, one of the things you don’t want is you don’t want some shooter showing up at another base in a month, and in his car, he has a picture of him and Aaron Alexis. I mean, no one knows for sure right now. They’re confident, but they’re not 100% certain that Aaron Alexis acted alone. They don’t know for certain that he paid for everything, or had the idea to shoot up the Navy Yard on his own, so they’re just making sure by going back and finding out as much as they can. And as Shawn Henry, the former head of the FBI field office in Washington told me, you know, they’ll go back to grade school if they have to just to understand everything they can about this man.

HH: Now these sorts of terrible massacres are following a taxonomy of three for me. They are the terrorist/jihadists, they are the revenge killings against people that you know, and then there’s this third category, which I think this is in, of deranged psychopaths. Do you agree that that feels like that, Jake Tapper?

JT: I guess the only think that would keep me from saying, I mean, obviously what he did was deranged and psychotic, although I’m certainly no doctor to make a diagnosis. But what he did was pure evil. I guess the one thing that keeps me from saying this was completely random is that he was a military contractor and had access to the Navy Yard. And we know from talking to enough people who had had contact with him in the last few years is that this is somebody who did complain a lot about not being paid, or not getting the benefits he thought he deserved, whether from the military or from other jobs. And so I wonder if there was some sort of gripe that escalated in his mind as he was becoming, at least from some accounts we’ve heard, increasingly deranged. Deb Feyerick, one of our great reporters for CNN, reported this afternoon that in Rhode Island, he was found just last month, just in August, saying to police that there were individuals who were using a microwave to cause vibrations to bother him, and it was to the point that the Rhode Island police reported this to the Navy Yard in Rhode Island, because they knew he was a contractor there as well. They wanted to make sure that the Naval personnel knew about this from somebody who had access to their yard. Obviously that, like other red flags we’ve heard about, fell through the cracks.

HH: Yeah, that’s a Kenneth, what’s the frequency moment from Dan Rather days, but it goes to mental…

JT: Old school. That’s an old school reference.

HH: That is an old school reference, but that is a, it’s a sign of schizophrenia or paranoia, or mental illness, not a revenge like the Columbine killers were aiming at the cool kids, but still psychosis, more like Gabby Giffords than it is than Major Hasan.

JT: Right.

HH: What I’m getting at, though, is there are these categories, but in all cases, the media tries to put an AR-15 at the scene.

JT: Well…

HH: That happened again yesterday. It was sort of like outcomes-based journalism. Where did that come from?

JT: I don’t know. I certainly never reported that. I don’t know where that came from. I understand that that is incorrect information. I can’t speak to the motivation of anybody who was talking about the fact that it was an AR-15 other than the fact that I think that there were some reports that it was. One of the doctors said during the press conference at Washington Hospital Center, and you know, unfortunately, Washington Hospital Center has experience with gunshot wounds. One of the first stories I covered in Washington, D.C. when I was the City Paper, was a boxer who was actually killed at Washington Hospital Center, shot at. And anyway, the physician there said that she thought it was a semi-automatic gun that had done the shooting. It turns out it was a shotgun, which also makes sense when you think about the severity of the wounds to the police officer’s legs, the fact that they were almost severed from one or two blasts.

HH: You know, you’re right. That’s got to be where it came from, because I heard the same press conference. I think you’re right, because these things get into the storyline, and I made mistakes yesterday, too. Fox News reported shots fired at the White House. I repeated it. So people make mistakes in this situation, so I’m not, I’m not down on people, but that AR-15 mistake has been made before, and I just think it’s sometimes we’ve got people who want them to be there. Let me ask you, Jake, the really…

JT: There certainly is, I understand, there certainly is a meme that it fits into, which is those who favor greater restrictions on gun control seem to have targeted this particular weapon, AR-15…

HH: Yes.

JT: …even though if you look at the, which guns cause the most violence or homicide, it’s actually handguns.

HH: Right.

JT: But anyway, be that as it may, I interrupted you. I’m sorry.

HH: A lot of reporters never cover the scene of a mass shooting in their life, or a mass act of violence. But in less than six months, here you’ve been outside the Boston Marathon bombing scene and the Navy Yard scene. How did they compare, and the coverage of it? What are you learning about this?

JT: I mean, just the lesson that a lot of us who have covered these things before just always need to keep in mind is that there’s a lot of information, a lot of it is conflicting, and a lot of it is wrong. And what’s good for first time reporters, or even for just news consumers to keep in mind is just because it’s coming from authorities doesn’t mean it’s right. And that’s just a good lesson for all of us. You know, our charge as journalists is to get the public accurate information as soon as possible. Sometimes, that means you want to couch things as much as you can. So for instance, yesterday when some news organizations incorrectly reported the name of somebody whose ID was apparently found at the scene, I mean, they should, I don’t know exactly how it was put out there, but the truth of the matter is that NCIS was internally discussing whether or not that individual was the suspect, and then they retracted it instead of, again, I don’t know how it was reported. But if anybody reported this is the shooter, they should have couched it more. And it’s just one of the other things like yesterday when the D.C. police chief, Cathy Lanier, who I’ve known for a long time and I have a lot of respect for, it’s not easy being a police chief in a city like Washington, when she kept on saying we don’t have confirmation, but we are seeking information about the two or three people, the second shooter or the third shooter. You know, the thing that’s important to remember is that’s big news that there’s a potential second shooter or a potential third shooter. But we also have to remind people there may not be.

HH: I know, that was extraordinary. I spent most of the show talking about the fact that D.C. was carrying on normally as though there wasn’t a potential second shooter. Let me close in the last couple of minutes, kudos to Peter Hamby and CNN who rolled up to the Marriott where the killer had been staying, even as the police and the FBI arrived. They may have beat them to the scene on the basis of a tip. That’s pretty extraordinary. But question, Jake, if the news media gets a tip like that, do they roll to the scene? Or do they tell the FBI that the guy, because it could have been wired for explosives. You never know. That’s what happened with the Aurora killer.

JT: Oh, it’s interesting. I don’t know. I’ve never been in a situation like that. Peter is a fantastic reporter. He is one of our shining lights, and if you haven’t read his…

HH: Oh, I read it.

JT: …treatise, yeah.

HH: Oh, it’s good, from the Shorenstein Center? Yes.

JT: Yeah, really interesting stuff about how the Romney campaign and Twitter didn’t connect as perhaps they could have. In any case, moving on, I don’t know. I suppose before you go into a hotel room, you want to let law enforcement know. But at the same time, in a fluid situation, look, there were witnesses yesterday who media were talking to on M Street SE, and they’d be in the middle of talking to us, and all of a sudden, the FBI came and grabbed them, because they hadn’t had a chance to talk to them, too. In a situation like this, it’s very fluid, and everybody’s trying to grab what they can. Obviously, law enforcement takes precedence, but that doesn’t mean they get there first.

HH: Yeah, when you see Peter, ask him if it crossed his mind that the place, if it had blown up before the police got there, what he would have thought about that. Jake Tapper, keep hosting The Lead. Great stuff.

JT: Thank you so much, Hugh.

HH: Terrific reporting the last couple of days.

End of interview.

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