The late, great ABC newsman Frank Reynolds was angry.
The date was March 30, 1981 and President Ronald Reagan victim of an assassination attempt, was at that moment being operated on to remove a bullet in his chest. Three other people had been wounded in the hail of shots from John Hinckley’s gun including White House Press Secretary James Brady.
Reynolds, an old-school newsman had been his usual calm, unflappable self despite the chaos in the newsroom around him. He had two producers talking to him in his ear piece as well as several reporters updating him every few minutes. But anchoring a live newscast had its own set of problems, not the least of which was that rumors were swirling about any number of things. Unconfirmed reports had Reagan slightly injured. Others had him at death’s door. Still other rumors dwelt with the condition of James Brady who was struck in the head by one of Hinckley’s bullets. One of Reynold’s producers reporting from George Washington University Hospital said that he had just talked to a doctor who confirmed that James Brady was dead.
Of course, James Brady was not dead, although he was in critical condition. According to his account, even after being told that Brady was gone, Reynold’s hesitated. Some reporter’s instinct told him in his gut that the information just wasn’t solid enough. Despite his misgivings, Reynolds went ahead and announced it with appropriate solemnity.
Within minutes, the ABC reporter on the scene at the hospital was frantically telling Reynolds that Brady was still alive. Reynold’s, angry and embarrassed, lost his composure on air for a moment and said “Let’s nail it down, let’s get it right.”
Critics rightly took ABC and Reynolds to task for reporting what turned out to be a rumor. In those days, it was considered bad journalism to pass along speculation and gossip. These days, as Dan Rather put it, sensationalizing the news by reporting wild rumors and unconfirmed, unsubstantiated, 2nd hand accounts of events, the press is “speaking truth to power.”
Rather isn’t the only media apologist who is excusing the MSM’s shockingly bad performance during coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs is pleading for understanding because of “conditions:”
Media analysts noted that conditions in New Orleans were chaotic and that reporters relied on fragmentary accounts, collected from often unverifiable sources.
“The fog of war and the gusts of a hurricane both cloud and obscure vital truths,” said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
“What we’re seeing here is no different than the reports of museum looting right after U.S. troops entered Baghdad. It’s not that different from election night 2000 when some journalists prematurely declared a winner. In all three cases, the public would have been served by a bit more patience and less feigned certainty.”
Note that Mr. Felling excuses the numerous factual errors and rumormongering by reporters as he pleads that journalism is too difficult to get right when things are confusing and besides, it’s happened before so it’s okay.
Contrast this attitude with the attitude of Mr. Reynolds following his faux paux and you get a perfect summary of what is wrong with journalism. News today is about “the story” not “the truth.” Part of the story of Katrina was the chaotic and violent conditions at the Superdome and Convention Center. Any information that contributed to that storyline was run without first being filtered through any kind of fact checking or confirmation process. Television producers and executives today want “flow” to the news, as if events unfold in a nice, tidy sequence. The broadcast should “march” at a swift pace. This contributes to the “drama” of the news. In short, the more entertaining we can make the news, the more viewers we will attract.
What happens to the truth in all this show-biz is predictable. When a bystander comes up to a reporter and tells a story of a 7 year old girl being raped and murdered in the bathroom of the Convention Center, since it fits into the storyline of the narrative, it is passed along and becomes part of “the first draft of history.” Except this draft is of a TV drama script, not a history book.
But other accusations that have gained wide currency are more demonstrably false. For instance, no one found the body of a girl – whose age was estimated at anywhere from 7 to 13 – who, according to multiple reports, was raped and killed with a knife to the throat at the Convention Center.
Many evacuees at the Convention Center the morning of Sept. 3 treated the story as gospel, and ticked off further atrocities: a baby trampled to death, multiple child rapes.
Salvatore Hall, standing on the corner of Julia Street and Convention Center Boulevard that day, just before the evacuation, said, “They raped and killed a 10-year-old in the bathroom.”
Neither he nor the many people around him who corroborated the killing had seen it themselves.
This widely reported story was a rumor. Part of the problem was the irresponsible behavior of Mayor Nagin and Police Chief Compass who continuously passed along rumors of the most spectacular atrocities including the rape of babies:
Compass told Winfrey on Sept. 6 that “some of the little babies (are) getting raped” in the Dome. Nagin backed it with his own tale of horrors: ‘’They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.’’
But both men have since pulled back to a degree.
“The information I had at the time, I thought it was credible,” Compass said, conceding his earlier statements were false. Asked for the source of the information, Compass said he didn’t remember.
Nagin was also the originator of the “10,000 dead” speculation, a figure that the Mayor still refuses to say who gave him.
These sins are more venal in nature in that when an authority figure like the Chief of Police or the Mayor says something – even if it’s off the wall – it must be reported as news. However, to take these accounts at face value without a hint of caution or skepticism and then fail to make any but the most cursory attempts at correcting the record later illustrates how far television news has fallen. During coverage of the Reagan assassination attempt, reporters, producers, and anchors were not overly concerned with the slow pace at which new information was coming in. The good journalists like John Chancellor and Frank Reynolds reminded the audience constantly that since this was a live news event – still something of a novelty in 1981 – that reporting on events was necessarily difficult. I distinctly remember Frank Reynolds ruefully pointing out that coverage of the event was not like a story on the nightly newscast; that the confusing and conflicting stories coming out of the the assassination attempt was an illustration of just how hard a job gathering the news was.
Unfortunately, the reporters on scene in New Orleans during coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina didn’t seem to have the same problem.