[Updated below, with CNN’s response.]
Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, became a media critic today, hammering CNN hard for relying on a police scanner this morning to misreport a Coast Guard training exercise on the Potomac River. The original CNN report wrongly suggested that shots had been fired on the river and noted that President Obama had just finished speaking nearby at the Pentagon, raising the possibility of some sort of criminal or terrorist attack. (To see a time line of CNN’s reporting, see here.)
In an off-camera gaggle in his office shortly after 11 a.m., Gibbs wasted no time before going after the network. A partial transcript follows.
QUESTION: The Coast Guard is doing a noon press conference to explain its training exercise.
GIBBS: Hopefully CNN will go. (Laughter.) That was on the record, by the way.
The questioning continued:
QUESTION: On the exercise did you guys have advance warning?
GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of, no. But I assume there is a training exercise going on somewhere in this country right now. I think we are all safer because of training exercises. My only caution would be before we report things like this, checking would be good.
QUESTION: But how smart is it to have something like this on 9/11, while the president is right in the area?
GIBBS: Again, I tend not to question law enforcement in trying to keep the nation’s capital safe. If they feel like they need a training exercise, I am not sure we are to second guess. Let’s understand that the best I can tell there was reporting based on listening to a police scanner that was not verified. And then it was on television. And now we have raced back to find out that it is a training exercise. So it appears as if a lot of this might have been avoided.
QUESTION: So do you feel that the exercise was appropriate?
GIBBS: That’s a decision that is made by the Coast Guard.
QUESTION: So this is not going to be like the unfortunate incident with Air Force One [flyover of Manhattan for publicity photos] earlier? It’s not comparable to that?
GIBBS: I don’t see any analogy to that, no.
Later, reporters tried again.
QUESTION: On the training exercise, why doesn’t it rise to the level of the Air Force One photos, setting aside the media coverage?
GIBBS: Setting aside the media coverage? Can I do a point of personal privilege? If we set aside the media coverage would you be asking me this question? . . .
QUESTION: Does the commander in chief have an opinion on whether or not the public should have been informed that on the 9/11 eight-year anniversary there was a training exercise set to take place on the Potomac River in the nations capital?
GIBBS: I’m not sure the president of the United States was notified, or knew about, or knows about each and every training exercise federal, state or local law enforcement do, in preparation for, God forbid, something ever happening again.
It went on like this for a while. Gibbs did not give any ground, and declined support the idea that the Coast Guard had done anything wrong. The Coast Guard has also declined to apologize for the training exercise.
“It’s unfortunate it escalated to this level,” said Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier. “What you’re seeing is the result of a normal training exercise such that when we have a threat or when we have a security issue in the national capital region, all agencies can come together under secure communications protocol and execute security operations very professionally and successfully.”
The full Coast Guard press release, explaining the event, is here.
UPDATE: Politico’s Michael Calderone has CNN’s response, in which the company spokesman says its reporters did in fact call the Coast Guard, and were initially told that the Coast Guard HQ was unaware of any activity on the Potomac.
CNN staff were monitoring law enforcement activity this morning given the 9/11 anniversary. After hearing a U.S. Coast Guard radio transmission that a boat had breached a security zone on the Potomac River a short distance from the Pentagon where the President had just attended a 9/11 anniversary ceremony, CNN contacted the Coast Guard public affairs office at the agency’s headquarters. The Coast Guard spokeswoman said she was unaware of any activity taking place on the Potomac River.
After hearing a further radio transmission about 10 rounds being expended, and after reviewing video of rapid movement by Coast Guard vessels as the President’s motorcade crossed the Memorial Bridge, CNN reported the story. Simultaneously, during a second phone call, the Coast Guard spokeswoman informed us that its National Command Center and other command posts knew nothing about any activity in the area.
Given the circumstances, it would have been irresponsible not to report on what we were hearing and seeing. As with any breaking news story, information is often fluid and CNN updated the story with the official explanation from the Coast Guard as soon as it was provided.