First Can Be Worst
As a son of a retired Publisher and President of one of the South's largest newspapers, I have cringed through the years as the Press has rushed to be first with no regard for being right. The 24/7 news cycle is the culprit, but victims are many times the innocent. Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Proudly, I can remember countless occasions my then Editor father on the phone with reporters asking, "Who's your first….Who's your second" when asking for sources. His attention to detail and in his own words "getting the damn thing right" while giving those who were historically right latitude were the reasons the very best reporters came to work for him and why his newspapers won three Pulitzer Prizes. It is this lack of focus of fact with more emphasis on sensationalism that has changed the perception of the media doing the work of Woodward and Bernstein to that of tabloids or paparazzi. In the lead-up to indictments being brought against George Zimmerman in 2012 for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a NBC Nightly News producer edited the police 911tape of Zimmerman's call. The producer's edits made it seem Zimmerman pursued Martin because he was black. The doctored version that aired said, "This guy looks he's up to no good….He looks black."1 Clearly, this would seem Zimmerman was profiling Martin because of race. What he actually said on the call was, "This looks like he's up to no good, or on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking around." The dispatcher then asks, "Ok, is this guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?" Zimmerman then says, "He looks black."1 NBC aired the distorted version four times from March 19-27 and is now being sued by Zimmerman.
Never mind that there had been eight burglaries in the 14 months before their encounter. Never mind that most media accounts even say that the break-ins were committed by black males. In another example, a black teenager in broad daylight stole a bicycle off the front porch of Zimmerman. The bike was never recovered.2 Weeks before Zimmerman saw Martin, he witnessed another young black male peering into the window of a neighbor's house. He called the cops, but by the time they arrived, the suspect was gone. A few days later, another house was burglarized. The thieves made off with jewelry and a new laptop. Roofers working across the street saw two black teenagers near the house at the time of the robbery. When they spotted one of the teens the next day, they called the police. This time, the roofers followed the suspect so he wouldn't get away. The cops arrived and found the stolen laptop in his backpack. This was the same black teenager Zimmerman had seen looking in a neighbor's window.2 These are facts that we certainly didn't hear much about during the trial and went a long way towards the innocent verdict that Zimmerman deserved.
The Asiana crash in San Francisco on July 6th is a wonderful example of journalistic omission rather than NBC's more devious act of commission. With the release of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues set for December, San Francisco's KTVU race to be first brought back to life a scene from Will Farrell’s first movie. I could hear his Station Manager Ed Harken's great quote, "Dammit…who typed a question mark on the Teleprompter. For the last time, anything you put on that prompter, Burgundy will read." Well life imitates art. Tori Campbell famously stared right into that camera like a deer staring at a hunter with a rifle perfectly scoped on her. She methodically read those four names that had been punked to a punk intern at the NTSB and now had in the rush to be first to the air waves had been punked to KTVU. And without batting an eye, ole Tori read straight from that prompter:
“KTVU has just learned the names of the four pilots who were on board the flight. They are:
CPT Sum Ting Wong Wi Tu Lo Ho Li Fuk Bang Ding Ow
The NTSB has confirmed these are the names the pilots on board Flt 214 when it crashed. We are working to determine what roles each of them played during the landing on Saturday.”3
Delicious! Wouldn’t you love to know what role Ho Li Fuk played in the crash!? To understand how elephantine a screw-up this was, you have to understand how a TV newsroom works. John and I have had the pleasure of being regulars on Fox 8's Your Turn for years. News generally comes in through an Assistant Producer who reads it. They pass it on to the shift Producer who reads it. It passes to the control room where it is proofed again and then it's typed into the prompters. Copies of what will be on the Prompters make their way to the on-air anchors who typically read it before it makes it to the prompter to familiarize themselves with the copy. You would think with Breaking News, Ms. Campbell might have rehearsed quickly the four Asian names which can be hard for many of us to verbalize. Nope…laziness and a total breakdown in the system lead to one of the funniest yet saddest moments for those of us who take reporting seriously.
The media deserves cynicism from its readers and viewers. It deserves the labels of biases and vapidness. Cutting corners for sensationalism and profit have given us a morning Weekly Reader for a paper and national media coverage more interested in the hard-hitting stories like the birth of a baby that's fourth in line for a mythical British throne he'll never see than the scandals at the IRS, State Department or in the Attorney General’s office. It's why I can't wait for December to see Ron Burgundy set the stage for more real-life Tori Campbell's. Archorman Redux: Art and life intersecting yet again.
1 “Rush to judgment: Journalists have already convicted George Zimmerman.” Jack Kelly. April 16, 2012. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
2 “Zimmerman Murder Trial: this Year’s Duke Lacrosse Case.” Ann Coulter. July 11, 2013. www.investors.com.
3 “KTVU Needs to Do a Lot More Than Just Apologize.” Chez Pazienza. July 17, 2013. www.huffingtonpost.com.
*Picture courtesy of www.anchorman-quotes.info/characters/ron-burgundy
The opinions in this commentary express the views of the author and in no way represents the views of LPL Financial. The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.