Monday, November 28, 2005

The X-Files, Part II

When a flashing "X" appeared over Vice-President Cheney's face on CNN last week, the network quickly dismissed it as a technical error. Like many in the blogosphere, I had my doubts and encouraged CNN to conduct an outside inquiry.

At the risk of patting myself on the back, that suggestion now looks like sage advice. Matt Drudge is now reporting that a CNN switchboard operator in the network's Washington bureau was fired for defending the X as "free speech." The operator made the comments in a conversation with a viewer, who called to complain about the X.

CNN has apologized publicly (again), and is attempting to reach the caller to convey their regrets. But this episode still smells fishy, for a couple of reasons. First of all, switchboard operators and receptionists don't sit anywhere near the control room, and (ordinarily) have no knowledge of what's going on in there, other than what they see on the monitor in the lobby. How would the receptionist have known that the technical director (who punches up the images that appear on the air) was exercising "free speech," unless someone from the control room tipped her off that "something would happen" during the Cheney speech.

The other puzzling aspect is CNN's decision to let an operator offer his/her opinion on a controversial development. While switchboard operators handle hundreds of calls a day, most organizations--including TV networks--have protocols in place for handling controversial subjects. Operators are (typically) instructed to listen patiently, express empathy and never argue with an irate caller. In other cases, calls will be referred to the public relations department, for handling by a media professional.

Admittedly, being a switchboard operator is sometimes a tough job, and being polite to all callers is sometimes easier said than done. But judging from CNN's official statement, it's sclear the operator deviated from official policies, and seemed to have an unusual awareness of why the X appeared on the screen. Based on this latest development, we still haven't heard the last from CNN's "X-Files" and the network would be well-served to launch an outside probe, to prove that the X was, in fact, a computer glitch, and determine why their operator seemed aware of a budding free speech movement in the control room.

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