03 February 2007

To err is human, but ...

Yesterday I came across an excellent post on Alternet by Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone. He wrote a terrific piece about the ugly insinuations and outright lies we’ve all been subjected to over the last six years by the news media, pointing out that if he had put this sort of crap into one of his own stories, he and his publisher would be facing a massive libel suit – and rightly so.

What got Taibbi writing this time was Barak Obama’s recent freezing out of Fox Channel reporters following the lie Fox picked up a couple of weeks from an unreliable source regarding Obama’s early education and his religion. (I’m not going to rehash the allegations here.) Rather than checking out the story – and discovering, rather easily, that it was a lie – Fox gleefully broadcasted it. Once the story had been thoroughly debunked by CNN, Fox didn’t offer a retraction or an apology to Obama, which would have been the honest and honorable thing to do.

Instead, the lie is still out there, stinking, available, and sure to continue to do its insidious harm to Obama in spite of his truthful denial of the lie and the fact that it was shown up to be a lie by other news outlets.

Obama didn’t sue the Fox Channel. That may be because to do so would only create more interest in the original lie, which some people would be ready to believe in a heartbeat -- and evidently do. Twits.

No, instead, the clever and pragmatic Obama has simply frozen Fox Channel reporters out of the events he’s involved in, and refuses to talk to them anymore.

This is absolutely reasonable. Why invite members of the media to your events when you know, without a doubt, that they’re going to spin and twist your words in order to hurt you and even make up lies about you at every opportunity? It’s a no-brainer, and I’m glad Obama has the cojones to do it.

Although the lie that Fox broadcast was just that – a lie – journalists do also make mistakes. Often. Honest journalists, when shown their error, will publish a correction. Sometimes it’s quite embarrassing, but we’re human. We try, but don’t always get it right.

Several years ago the local hospital sent my paper a press release regarding a new building they were preparing to open and, incidentally, promoting the new PET imaging machine they were purchasing for it. They were rightly pleased to announce their acquisition, though the release didn’t go into any detail about the scanner or what it was for.

At the time, I had never heard of PET scans. I try to know everything, but jeez, sometimes I just don’t. Unfortunately, neither had the reporter I sent out to cover the story. When she wrote it up, she mentioned the PET scanner – and said it was for (can you see this coming?) pets.

We were working on a tight deadline, as usual. I got the story from her just a few hours before the paper was going to press. It struck me as very odd that a local hospital would offer to scan dogs and cats for cancer, as she wrote, but hey, what a nice service to offer! Distracted, busy, trying to deal with ten different crises at the same time, I shrugged and let it go, sure that the reporter knew what she was talking about. She said the hospital would scan pets, well, that must be the case.

We published. The day it hit the streets, I’d been in the office for about an hour when I got a phone call from the PR guy at the hospital. To his credit, he didn’t yell, he wasn’t snide, he was perfectly polite as he explained that while scanning pets for cancer would be a sweet thing to do and the hospital sure wished it was possible, their new PET machine was exclusively for people. PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography, he said, kindly.

Then he asked, with great patience, if I wouldn’t mind very much publishing a correction in the next issue of the paper? So people didn’t bring their dogs and cats to the new facility for ... scans?

By this time, I had my bright-red face in my hands and wanted the floor to open up beneath my chair. “Of course,” I said. “Absolutely.” I apologized profusely for the error; he laughed gently and said anyone could have made it. I’m sure when he hung up he and his colleagues burst into gales of hilarity. I would have.

When I told the reporter, she was appalled. She burst into tears. Young, not long out of journalism school, she loved animals and was a big-hearted and an earnest reporter -- and she’d just assumed she knew what that scanner was for. She hadn’t asked anyone about it, nor in her rush to get the story done by deadline, had she done any research – not even a quick look at Google, which would have quickly set her right.

And I, as her editor, hadn't listened to my inner alarm when it went off. We both learned a tough -- and embarrassing -- lesson that day.

I ran the correction the following week, along with an explanation as to what a PET scan actually was. Nothing more was said and the incident was over. Eventually, we laughed about it.

It’s easy to make stupid mistakes as a journalist. Time – or the lack of it – is often the culprit, but there’s not much excuse for it, really. The one we made was pretty harmless, and we corrected it as quickly as we could. Even now, though, I still blush with shame when I think of it.

But the mistake that Fox made – and then, knowing it was a lie, perpetuated – was malicious. Bravo to Obama for freezing out their “reporters.” They don’t even deserve the title.


Mike Kretzler said...

A good story, very well told. Thanks. It helps to illustrate what "journalism" is becoming in the hands of big media companies.

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

A guy (hard-core republican, as is everyone in my office) walked into my office yesterday and asked, "Did you hear about Obama?"

I said, "Yeah, but it turns out that story wasn't true."

"No," he said. "I think it IS true." He's one of millions who won't watch anything BUT Fox and/or similar stations (e.g., whatever station Rush Limbaugh is on). So, as you rightly point out, it's still out there and probably won't ever be corrected by Fox.

roxtar said...

Hey, in a world where hospitals regularly, and to great fanfare, x-ray Halloween candy, anything is possible. And the person who wrote the release committed the sin of relying on his knowledge, instead of imparting knowledge to the intended audience. Still, it's a classic, soon to be one of those apocryphal classics that happened to a friend of a friend. You might even end up on Snopes!

Blue Wren said...

Oh, ouch. NOT Snopes, please?
Yeah, he could have spelled out PET for the uninformed among us -- would have avoided the whole ordeal. I did think of that, during that stomach-shriveling conversation with the PR guy, but ... you know. If I'd been listening to my own inner voice, I'd have questioned it, busy or not.
It's worth a laugh, now.