About two months ago Rasmussen Reports conducted a national telephone survey which showed 42 percent of Americans don't trust the news media. If you think that number is shocking, well, 12 percent believe the news reported by the media is not at all trustworthy.
The "news" coverage of last week's Boston Marathon bombings show why.
I was in a position to be able to flip from NBC to ABC to CBS to Fox News to CNN to ESPN to CNBC and, God forgive me, even a little MSNBC. Victims of the violence in Boston weren't the only ones who needed to call 911. The American viewing public, the consumers of information -- and thus the customers of the networks -- should have been calling Journalism 911.
(Or, as I did on Twitter-- @SpinDoctor500 -- calling them out.)
What a disgrace. Yes, print media had its failings, too, but for now I'm talking TV.
The need to fill air time -- and the insane imperative to be "first" (right or wrong be damned) -- led one talking head after another to embarrass a once proud profession with bad, wrong, inaccurate, false information. Now, the rush to "report" -- and get it wrong -- isn't new. When President Reagan was shot in 1981, ABC News told its audience that Press Secretary James Brady had died of his wounds. When that proved to be inaccurate, an angry (and well respected) anchor Frank Reynolds admonished his producers and reporters, “Let's nail it down, let's get it right.”
Given that the attack took place at an important and iconic sporting event, ESPN correctly pre-empted other programming and went with a live newscast. I wasn't surprised old pro Bob Ley was a calming and informative presence. Maria Bartiromo smoothly went from telling what was happening in Boston to saying what impact it had on the stock markets (CNBC is a business channel.)
I had it with CNN when its national security analyst Peter Bergen said the attack could have come from a right wing, anti-tax group. John King, his own show recently canceled and fighting to save his career and impress new boss Jeff Zucker, was front-and-center with his "exclusive" that an arrest was about to/was made. It was a bad, Bad, BAD day for CNN because its historical reputation has been as the network of choice for Big Breaking news.
MSNBC's Chris Matthews (the man obviously needs help) also pointed to the right wing. FACTS? NONE! This immediately reminded me of when leftists accused Sarah Palin has having some responsibility for the Tucson shooting that involved Rep. Gabby Giffords.
Over at Fox News, prime anchor Shepard Smith repeatedly said he wouldn't engage in speculation, but then his producers provided him with one guest after another who did just that. The following day, anchor Megyn Kelly was reversing herself about every 15 minutes: An arrest is imminent. An arrest has been made. No arrest has been made. She should have left the set that day feeling very, Very, VERY embarrassed and excuses about "this is cable" were nothing but CYA. In fact, when Bill Hemmer followed her, he began by saying, "We're going to take it slow and get it right," which came across to me as a rebuke of Kelly. On Bill O'Reilly, Kelly described what happened as "unfortunate." To say the least!
Noted control freak O'Reilly complained for two nights that Boston wasn't a "tragedy," all the while network promos for his show asked viewers to watch him for the latest on the "tragic events." Monday, O'Reilly asked guest Peter King, the New York congressman, to come back the following night. King said yes. Next night, no King, and no explanation. We all could have done without Sean Hannity's knee-jerk finger-pointing. That was predictable and he should have been parked that night (and Friday) for a straight news show. In fact, shockingly, self-absorbed Hannity started to get into details of how a home-made bomb could be created, and had to be warned off that talk by a guest. It was bad, Bad, BAD for Fox News because it's the top-rated cable news network.
It used to be huge news stories like this one were an all-hands-on-deck situation. But Smith disappeared off his normal shows Wednesday and Thursday. Martha MacCallum, perhaps Fox News' most empathetic anchor and just back from a vacation, wasn't seen until Friday.
Tuesday, Fox News was the only network not to provide live coverage of President Obama's remarks on the defeat of gun control legislation. This was during The Five -- a few seconds of the president were shown, then it was right back to the yappers. It was an unbelievable lapse of news judgment, but reflective of the current cable TV mentality, where what the pundits say is considered by management as more important than what the actual newsmakers say.
As far as I can tell, CBS was the only one to get it right.
For all the excuses made for all of the mistakes, the truth is there is no true excuse. It's a sign of the times in the media. With the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination coming this November, I will point you to watch what was reported by CBS, NBC and ABC that day in 1963. No pundits, no speculation, just confirmed FACTS.
If all of these networks, and the major journalism schools and organizations, don't conduct a full-scale analysis of all that went wrong -- and then take concrete corrective measures -- that will be yet another signal that the death of real journalism is at hand. In particular, Zucker and Fox News President Roger Ailes had best strongly address their internal problems.
April 15 and 16 were days which will live in infamy for journalism.
And if you think credibility and trust aren't problems for the sports journalism community, too, you are wrong.
Here's the problem for NASCAR and the NASCAR media: On one hand, we're told the drivers have become too corporate, only say what their sponsors like. On the other hand, when someone like Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski launches on the sanction post-Texas, Fox's Larry McReynolds' reaction: "He (Brad K) needs to figure out that the less you say, the better off you’ll be. What he said the other night at Texas can do nothing but hurt him." Which is it? Make up your mind, guys.
From Bob Margolis:
I thought it was a terrible mistake -- a slap in the face of the rest of the racing world -- when some continued to issue routine news releases in the days after Dale Earnhardt's death. But the worst I've seen since then came last week when the company that sells HANS devices cited NHRA Super Gas driver Derek Sanchez's fatal accident at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to encourage use/sales of its safety product. The release cited Sanchez by name and noted he was not wearing a HANS. I know HANS President Jim Downing was and is frustrated that all drivers don't use such a safety device. But I'm nearly shocked Downing would authorize and allow his name to be used in such an insensitive document. Disgusting. I don't know whose idea this was, or who wrote it, but the listed contact is Gary Milgrom, a HANS VP. Other than a public rebuke, though, I'm not sure what consequence will follow.
[ more next Monday . . . ]