Wednesday, January 04, 2006

How Did This Happen?

The Washington Post got it wrong. So did USA Today, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Daily Press of Hampton, VA, and scores of other local newspapers. In this morning's editions, these papers reported that the 12 West Virginia coal miners had been found alive. Almost as soon as those papers hit the streets, we learned the truth; only one of the minors had survived.

Blowing a big story always triggers self-analysis and introspection among the chattering class. How did it happen, and how can we prevent this from happening again. Unfortunately for the MSM, the internal critique usually lasts until the next big story, when breathless competition again carries the day, and we see more examples of the press getting it horribly wrong. Not so long ago, we were told that hurricane victims had died by the score at the New Orleans Superdome, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The actual death toll was six, and most of those were attributed to natural causes. Now, just four months later, the media horde blew it again in West Virginia.

As a former broadcast and print reporter, I understand the demands of breaking news and cut-throat competition, now compounded by a 24-hour news cycle and the internet. But even a hyper-competitive market does not suspend the requirement for old-fashioned legwork, fact-checking and caution.

Consider the example of NBC news correspondent Robert Hager. He's now semi-retired; NBC sent him to West Virginia because of his past experience in covering this type of story. When word was flashed last night that the miners had been rescued, Hager was careful to point out that the report had not been fully confirmed. And, when the miners failed to appear after a short time, Hager noted the contradiction between what had been stated, and what was being actually observed. The rest of the media circus, caught up in the euphoria of the moment, kept reporting that the miners were alive.

It was a textbook example of how a reporter should handle breaking news. Unfortunately, Hager's professionalism didn't rub off on his fellow journalists, who were too busy reporting good news that hadn't been confirmed. During his days at NBC, Hager was regarded as one of the best general assignment reporters in broadcast news; he was not telegenic or charismatic enough for the White House or State Department, but he had no peer on the beats he covered, including aviation. Watching the spectacle in West Virginia early today, it seems that Mr. Hager is part of a dying breed.

Not surprisingly, some journalists are blaming others for their shortcomings. Michelle Malkin has an e-mail from a TV news veteran who claims that the locals distrusted the media:

"I think a lot of this can be traced to the fact that in this part of the country, there is a great deal of contempt for and fear of the media. Look at what the situation was. The media was not allowed in the church where the family was gathered, and they were not allowed in the command center. They had no access to the people who actually KNEW what was going on. Anderson Cooper, Geraldo, Rita Cosby and the rest of them were all standing on the side of the road with no access to anybody! This is because the people involved actively refused to give the media access to the situation. Even during the period when they were "alive", I saw someone come up to the CNN camera outside the church and shove it away. The media obviously weren't welcome."

Reading those comments, two thoughts come to mind. First of all, can you blame them? Families and friends, hanging on to slim hopes for loved ones trapped below, find themselves suddenly beseiged by an intrusive media army. And even in West Virginia, people recognize the media for what it is: a ravenous monster that charges from story to story, with only the slightest concern for those affected by it. Think about it: would you give a TV news crew into your home if your husband, wife, or child were trapped in a mine? Or had been killed in Iraq? Many of the residents around the mine, having seen the press in action, chose to keep their distance from the media, and rightfully so.

My second thought goes back to journalism 101. Just because you work for CNN, FNC, or the NYT doesn't obligate someone to make the pilgrimage to your stand-up site, or laptop at the press center. Access to a story sometimes requires shoe leather and a little hard work, something the current generation of media stars don't want to do. It was much easier to stand along on that roadside and interview family members emerging from the church. As a result, they learned a hard lesson in West Virginia, further eroding what little credibility they still had. I don't feel sorry for them. Neither should you.

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