A hostage situation that developed in Sydney, Australia on Monday ended in gunfire after a 16-hour standoff that culminated in a joint SAS/police raid during which the hostage-taker and two others were killed. During the siege, national media organizations followed police requests not to release the name of the gunman, who was later identified as Man Haron Monis, a “self-styled sheikh” who was known to police as something of a political crank with a criminal history.
Monis took seventeen people hostage at a Lindt chocolate shop and cafe in Sydney Monday morning, armed with a shotgun and what he said were several bombs. Five of the hostages escaped a few hours later, and after more than 16 hours, the siege ended with Monis and two hostages dead, and the remainder of the hostages freed.
One of several 21st century subplots to emerge during this crisis, along with a hot social media angle and terror-gouging Uber drivers, was the media navel-gazing over how to cover events like these — navel-gazing which now occurs in real time. Monis released several videos of hostages relaying his demands for an ISIS flag and a conversation with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Again at the request of police, outlets such as CNN agreed not to play the videos as the crisis was still active, and the videos were removed from YouTube. The police requests for restraint led to the surreal spectacle of CNN counter-terrorism analyst Philip Mudd praising the network for it’s restraint in the middle of CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Australian Hostage Crisis:
“We’ve matured just in a couple of years. These folks wanted the same thing. They don’t just want hostages. They want to say we are a state, a people who require your attention. CNN and others have matured in saying ‘we’re not going to give you that coverage,’ I think it’s great.”
Aside from the irony of Mudd asserting that they weren’t giving the gunman coverage during their blanket coverage, the only restraint CNN showed was that which was specifically asked of them by police, which, by the way, might not have even been the wisest course. It does make a certain amount of sense that seeing his demands broadcast live on TV could have a negative effect on the gunman, but I’m skeptical of the benefit of withholding his name. In general, I believe in a maximalist approach to information, unless there is clear potential for harm. Still, there’s no shame in playing it safe with a request from police, in the middle of a dangerous situation.
But before and after Mudd’s declaration, CNN was running video of the gunman’s face, as seen through the glass door of the café, and of the hostages raising what they described as an “Islamic flag” (actually an al Nusra flag with an Islamic phrase on it) in the café window, and of terrified hostages escaping the scene, on a veritable loop. Man Haron Manis may not have seen his name or coerced video postcards on TV, but he certainly would not have been attention-starved. On top of that, once the siege had ended, CNN played uncut, un-blurred footage of hostages being wheeled out on gurneys, one being frantically resuscitated, before any family member could possibly have been notified of their loved-one’s condition. Two of the hostages later died.
In a touch ripped straight from Sunday night’s finale of The Newsroom, CNN even followed Mudd’s declaration with a red vs. blue political segment, featuring Paul Begala and Ana Navarro weighing in on the political implications of the event. All of the coverage was accompanied by the now-traditional high-impact “SYDNEY SIEGE” graphics and theme music that accompany this sort of incident.
There are great conversations to be had about the news value of any of these aspects of CNN’s coverage, but restrained and mature it was not.