In December two air marshals gunned down an American citizen in Miami, and most of the establishment media outlets apparently couldn't care less. Immediately after 44-year-old Rigoberto Alpizar died on December 7 in a hail of bullets from two air marshals, Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, told CNN Alpizar had shouted "I have a bomb in my bag" while running up and down the aisle of an American Airlines plane as it sat on the runway. This was the version of events that the vast majority of the media repeated unquestioningly in the first days after the killing.
But on December 8, online reports from Time and CNN contained quotes from passengers that contradicted the feds' story. A day later, the Orlando Sentinel reported that "seven passengers...seated in both the front and rear of the main passenger cabin...said Alpizar was silent as he ran past them on his way to the exit." No passenger the Sentinel spoke to offered any account akin to what the feds claimed.
What exactly happened is not yet clear. But the primary justification the feds offered for using deadly force did not survive even two full news cycles.
Nevertheless, the press rushed to exonerate. A December 9 Washington Post editorial proclaimed, "There is, at this stage, no reason to doubt the official account of the slaying." Across town, The Washington Times derided any "second-guessing" and drew a happy moral: "Mr. Alpizar's death is a reminder of how seriously the marshals treat airline security. We should all take due notice."
Editorialists seemed hell-bent on promulgating the official story. The Louisville Courier-Journal announced on December 10, "The passenger, Rigoberto Alpizar, a naturalized American citizen said to be suffering from bipolar disorder, shouted that he had a bomb and ran from a plane." Two days later, a Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial explained the marshals' dilemma: "A youngish [44-year-old?] male bolts from his seat in the rear of the plane and sprints toward the cockpit, yelling that he has a bomb." On the same day, the Daily Oklahoman asked, "When Alpizar became agitated and began running down the aisle of the airplane, claiming he had a bomb in his bag, what were marshals to think?" The Brahmins at PBS's NewsHour declared, in an online article, that "no serious questions have been raised about the actions of the air marshals who killed the passenger."
By December 13, the story had unraveled enough for officials to modify their description of the killing. As a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial put it, "According to law enforcement officials, Alpizar 'uttered threatening words that included a sentence to the effect that he had a bomb.' " It's a long way from running down an aisle shouting to using unspecified "threatening words." But the Post-Gazette was less interested in probing further than in helping the feds backtrack, concluding, "by all initial accounts, the marshals did their job." Except for the accounts of the passengers on the plane who said they never heard Alpizar mention a bomb.
Some editorials called for an independent investigation of the shooting. This is a triumph of hope over experience, given that such investigations are almost always whitewashes. Perhaps some truth will seep out as a result of jurisdictional conflicts between the Federal Air Marshal Service and the FBI or Miami police. But if the media keep acting like South Park's Officer Barbrady--"Nothing to see here, folks, just move along"--the odds of any such revelation go from slim to none.
Americans once were taught that the press would serve as a check on government powers. That platitude is fading as news professionals show less regard for private citizens than for officials who can provide exclusive access and tips. The same media docility that helped the Bush administration sell the war in Iraq is still there, now serving Leviathan on the homefront. Perhaps if Alpizar had regularly attended Georgetown dinner parties, the media would show more curiosity about his fate.