City Paper is not for tourists
As we all now know, investigators determined that last week’s bomb scare on 16th Street NW had nothing to do with the nearby Planned Parenthood officeand was caused not by a bomb but the accidental detonation of a small fuze. With some exasperation, law-enforcement officials worked hard to convince salivating reporters that nothing newsworthy had occurred. Indeed, because of the strange confluence of time, place, and hype, the news ended up being the only news.
“Witnesses heard a sound they described as a ‘pop’ no louder than a firecracker, as components of an incomplete explosive device discharged in the hand of a male victim,” the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) reported in its news release on the detonation. The devicea detonating fuze for a hand grenadewas set off by Wilbur Turcios, a hotel employee waiting for a bus. He was guilty not of anti-abortion zealotry but of poor judgmentwho would pull two pins from a weird metal device found among street trash?
But investigators and subsequent press accounts raised intriguing questions that remain unanswered days after the nonevent. If the blast sounded only as loud as a firecracker, why did someone call the cops? And how did reporters get the idea that Planned Parenthood had been bombed?
The answers still aren’t clear, but the media is blaming the cops and the cops are blaming the media. And everyone is blaming Planned Parenthood.
As an assignment editor at CNN, Vito Maggiolo is used to keeping an ear tuned to the police scanners and radios lining the assignment desk in the 1st Street NE Washington bureau. But it’s not often he hears a Secret Service agent reporting an “explosion” to headquarters.
Last Wednesday before 8 a.m., Maggiolo monitored just such a transmission, helping trigger the convoluted chain reaction. “It was a Secret Service uniformed officer, apparently one of the officers guarding the Russian Embassy over there on 16th, and he reported that there was an explosion, and that a Hispanic person was seen running from the scene.” CNN sent a crew to cover the story.
Maggiolo says the Secret Service officer “did make some reference to Planned Parenthood,” and “he did use the word ‘explosion.’”
Not so fast, says a spokesman for the Secret Service. “We’re not going to be able to confirm anything like that,” says Arnette Heintze testily. “Y’all need to answer your own questions there. You in the media need to look in the mirror yourselves to see how this got overblown.”
Indeed, TV reporters instantly reported speculation that a Christian nut had lobbed a grenade into Planned Parenthood and then run toward the nearby Mayflower Hotel, the site of a luncheon on abortion to be attended later in the day by the vice president and first lady. About 9 a.m., the international news service Reuters even reported that an “explosion” had “rocked downtown Washington.”
But reporters say they didn’t simply invent the explosion. Journalists on the scene say the policewho even before the bomb scare had stationed a cop outside Planned Parenthood because it was the anniversary of Roe v. Wadefreely mused in radio transmissions that the “bomb,” as they were calling it, was linked to the anti-abortion protests that day. Reporters, of course, listen to those radio transmissions around the clock. They say they wouldn’t have reported an explosion if police hadn’t reported one on their radios.
For instance, the Washington Post’s Steve Vogel heard about the “bombing” from Firecom, a paging system that alerts subscribers to news culled from police and fire scanners. Similarly, WRC-TV heard the heated news directly from a police scanner.
MPD officials won’t say why they initially thought the firecrackerlike pop was a bigger blast. “That would entail getting the tape transcript from the initial call, from whoever called us initially on this,” says Officer Kenny Bryson, an MPD spokesman. “And we don’t do that unless we have a subpoena.” Bryson left open the possibility that the police officers parked outside Planned Parenthood made the initial call. A random passer-by, seeing someone flee after hearing the noise, may also have alerted them.
Whatever the case, Bryson says he thinks the first media reports exaggerated what reporters heard on the scanners. “This stuff took off, and the story went on and on and on,” he says. “Especially the TV peopleyou know how they are with something like this.”
What seems clear now is that two sets of exaggerations collidedbored police were radioing fellow cops with a worst-case scenario, and reporters were hoping to fill the ever-deeper news hole with that scenario. “Maybe it’s like that old party game, where I tell you something, and you tell somebody else something, and they tell someone else, and suddenly we go from small incident to enormous incident,” says FBI spokeswoman Susan Lloyd. On any other day, in any other cityand perhaps in any other part of the citythe “small incident” would never have received notice outside Turcios’ family.
Beyond the unfortunate coincidence, however, what made matters worse was the reaction of Planned Parenthood. Having already called a national press conference that day to discuss abortion-clinic violence, organization officials wasted no time comparing the event to the recent bombing of a clinic in Atlanta. “[Planned Parenthood] made great hay out of it,” says Reuter reporter Bob Kearns. “They made much ado about nothing.”
Yet according to a spokeswoman for the abortion-rights advocacy group, no one in the buildingeven on the first floorheard the fuse go off. “We heard it from news accounts,” she says.
“They got everyone even more excited than we probably should have been, although you can understand why with all the tension of the day,” says a cop, who asked not to be identified.
Planned Parenthood says it didn’t overstate the potential threat to abortion clinics. “It was a fairly stressed situation here,” says the spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified because she fears she may be targeted by “crazies.” She admits that “it’s a fairly confused set of events, even now.”