Scott Pelley’s ‘Breaking Story’ Breaks Up

The anchor Scott Pelley opened CBS’s Evening News on July 11: “Tonight, a break in the Boston Strangler case. After 50 years, Boston police say they have their man. Terrell Brown has the breaking story.”

After the opening, Pelley went on say: “A notorious cold case suddenly turned very hot today, the case of the Boston Strangler. Prosecutors say that for the first time D-N-A has linked Albert DeSalvo to one of the victims with nearly 100 percent certainty, and now investigators plan to dig up DeSalvo’s remains to do more tests.”

But six hours before Pelley said the story was breaking, the New York Daily News posted an article disclosing the impending exhumation and what the district attorney called a 99.9 percent match of DNA.

The Daily News story (posted at 12:40 p.m. ET) quoted the Massachusetts attorney general as saying: “Today’s development may mean we have solved one of the most notorious cases in Boston’s history. One last step remains…to make a direct match with Albert DeSalvo’s body.”

Twenty-six minutes later, The Associated Press moved a more detailed story Although the AP mentioned [at 1:06 p.m. ET] the “familial match,” it did not specify “99.9 percent.” Even if the staff of the CBS Evening News didn’t see the Daily News story, it should have seen the AP article—five and a half hours before Pelley called the story breaking.

After Pelley’s intro, the correspondent, Terrell Brown, began his report by reviewing the history of the Boston Strangler in the 1960s. Then Brown set up video of the district attorney, who told of the “familial match” of DNA.

Brown said 11 women were killed, then spoke of DeSalvo’s confession and his death in prison; he was stabbed by another inmate. The background was also recounted by the Daily News at 12:40 p.m. Brown then talked about the 99.9 percent match in DNA, which the Daily News had reported at 12:40 p.m. Brown closed by saying the exhumation would take place the next day, as it did. The Daily News had said the exhumation would take place “this week,” not “tomorrow.” (In the 1968 film The Boston Strangler, Tony Curtis played DeSalvo. But that’s another story.)

Pelley buttoned up Brown’s report by saying “Fascinating. Terrell, thank you very much.” Although Pelley had begun by calling his newscast’s coverage of DeSalvo a breaking story, he and Brown didn’t break anything, not a single, solitary new, let alone news. A breaking story? Gimme a break. Say, isn’t mislabeling a product a federal offense?

If you savor stories about the breaking news blight blanketing the country, several other examples are presented in my latest book (advt.), “Weighing Anchors: When Network Newscasters Don’t Know Write from Wrong.”

© Mervin Block 2013