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Broadcast Nets Break Into Programming to Cover San Bernardino Shooting

Los Angeles area affiliates, broadcast networks and their stations broke into regularly scheduled programming Wednesday afternoon to cover a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., a city 60 miles east of L.A. The shooting at a mixed-use county building, the Inland Regional Center, where children with special needs received treatment and county health department employees had gathered for a holiday party, left 14 dead and at least 17 wounded, making it the nation's worst shooting since the 2012 attack on a school in Newtown, Conn.

The day's idiosyncratic twist and turns, especially the clean exit of multiple shooters from the scene and the search for (and gun battle with) suspects in the adjacent area, defied many of the too-familiar tropes of recent U.S. shootings. Those differences left news teams struggling with the dearth of information and the looming question of what, if any, connection the events had to the Paris terror siege of just two and a half weeks ago.

Each of the major L.A. stations, KCBS 2, KNBC 4, KTLA 5, KABC 7, KCAL 9, KTTV 11 and Univision 34 (KMEX-DT), began reporting live from the area soon after news of the shooting broke at approximately 2 p.m. Eastern.

The New York stations went live during the afternoon hours as well, and relied on their corporate siblings for local coverage, including Tribune's WPIX with footage from KTLA.

Sgt. Vicki Cervantes from the San Bernardino Police Department told KABC that the suspects opened fire during an event that was taking place at IRC. While Cervantes did not reveal what that event was, Brandon Hunt, an employee at IRC, said a banquet was taking place for county personnel at the facility's conference center.

At approximately 5 p.m. Eastern, law enforcement officials held a news conference, saying that as many as 14 people had died and 14 injured. During the presser, officials also said at least one suspect fled the scene in a black GMC Yukon.

The 5 p.m. slot in New York offered a mix of reportage from greater Los Angeles and New York. West Coast-based correspondents worked on finding out the motive of the killers. NBC anchor Lester Holt cited an FBI agent on the scene, saying, “Everyone wants to know—is this terrorism? I don’t know…That remains a huge mystery here.”

The New York newsgatherers focused on the Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center, an iconic part of the holiday celebration in New York. On WNYW, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said, “There’s no specific threat.”

His predecessor, Raymond Kelly, spoke on ABC, prefacing his statement as “purely speculative,” but telling anchor George Stephanopoulos that ISIS’ involvement had to at least be “on the table.”

On WCBS, Michael McCann, former United Nations security chief, told local anchors that New York law enforcement is well trained to spot interlopers at the Rockefeller Center festivities, and reiterated that there’s “no direct, specific threat.”

As of 6:25 p.m. Eastern, Cervantes said number of dead still at 14 while the number of injured increased to 17.

While the networks had been live for hours, they took the opportunity at 6:30 p.m. ET to reintroduce the lead anchors and recap the day’s news for those who perhaps were unaware. Aerial coverage was the standard, showing a pair of armored vehicles bookending the suspects’ black SUV, with one suspect on the ground and another thought to still be in the vehicle.

CBS and NBC featured footage of the same bearded and tearful man, whose wife had been inside the building during the shooting. “This is my wife, man, this is my queen,” he said.
Details were in somewhat short supply, and the broadcast news outfits were initially cautious near the top of the newscasts to declare one suspect dead. The cable nets were bolder in this regard, CNN’s lower third saying, at 6:38, Police Kill One Suspect, Apparent Standoff With Others.

CNN featured aerial footage from KCAL/KCBS, as did Tribune’s WPIX. Fox News Channel’s video around 6:40 was from ABC-owned KABC.

Fox’s New York O&O WNYW aired TMZ at 6:30, while sister WWOR had Family Feud.

The nets stuck with helicopter footage as a third law enforcement vehicle, a shielded, and presumably bomb-resistant, tractor/forklift vehicle approached the suspects’ SUV. The anchors acknowledged that the wounded suspect could be armed with explosives; the on-air tension was palpable.

Said NBC correspondent Pete Williams at 6:45, “I’m not sure what the next step is.”

At 7 p.m., WNBC-TV in New York and select NBC stations abruptly pivoted from Lester Holt's national news coverage to annual coverage of the Rockefeller Center tree lighting. The first musical performance: Band of Merrymakers.

Officials are expected to hold a press conferene at 6:45 p.m. Eastern.

Ahead of the briefing, San Bernardino Police Department Chief Jarrod Burguan tweeted at 7:15 p.m.: "Suspects are down, one officer wounded. Details still unfolding."

Authorities promised hourly briefings for media. With one suspect still believed to be at large and so many details still unknown, the question for news organizations was how long to stay live and what angle to pursue. The answer was likely to change frequently through the many rapidly changing hours after the violence first began. 

The 6:45 p.m. presser started at approximately 8:35 p.m. ET with Burguan the afternoon's sequence of events, which had been piecemealed by the nets. Burguan said that law enforcement officers followed up on a lead in nearby Redlands, Calif. As officers approached the location, a vehicle fled the scene, which then resulted in a high speed chase that led them back to San Bernardino. A gun battle ensued between suspects in the vehicle and officers, ending with two suspects dead (one male and one female) and one officer injured. A third person, who was seen running away from the vehicle, has been detained.

The chief also confirmed that the suspects stormed into a county health employee banquet, which was taking place at the facility, and said one person did leave the banquet after a dispute. However, he did not say whether or not that person was one of the suspects.

FBI official David Bowdich fielded questions about whether the attack was terrorism, saying only that that was a "possiblity."

“What I will tell you…we will go where the evidence takes us,” Bowdich added.

SBPD has scheduled another conference for 12 a.m. ET.

By 11 p.m. ET, all Los Angeles broadcast nets had resumed regular primetime programming. Though, the cable news networks -- MSNBC, CNN and Fox News -- continued to cover the shooting.

The 12 a.m. ET presser was pushed back to 1 a.m. ET. SBPD chief Burguan identified the suspects, who were killed during a shootout earlier in the day, as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27. The chief, who was the only official to speak, said Farook and Malik were reportedly either married or engaged.

Burguan also confirmed that Farook, a county employee, left the party at IRC angry before returning a short time later armed and with Malik. No motive has been revealed. Though, Burguan said "We have not ruled out terrorism.”

The major Los Angeles broadcast nets with 10 p.m. PT programming did not break away to cover the conference.

Dade Hayes, Jessika Walsten and Mike Malone contributed to this report.