Sunday, October 31, 2010

And They Wonder Why We Hate Them (Alaska TV Edition)

As many of you know, I am a recovering journalist. Before coming to my senses (and embarking on a military career) I spent several years as a print and broadcast reporter in the Mid-South region. During that time, I participated in literally hundreds of story, planning and general bull sessions, aimed at determining how the paper or broadcast outlet would cover the news.

The process goes something like this: editors or assignment managers (in broadcast journalism) build a "budget" of projected stories, based on the AP Daybook, the local police blotter, calls to their own contacts and other sources. Reporters and photographers (videographers on the TV side) have the opportunity to pitch story ideas and get their assignments. If the meeting is focusing on long-term coverage plans, the paper's managing editor or the station's news director may sit in on the meeting.

In many cases, it's a battle of egos against print space or airtime. Every reporter thinks his or her story is the most important, and they're willing to knife their competitor to keep the lead slot, or the space above the fold. There's usually a generous amount of cynicism and blue humor thrown in, the sort of stuff you can't reprint in a family-friendly blog.

Still, having been a participant in the process--and having sat through more story conferences and assignment meetings that I care to count--I was positively shocked by what transpired at KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, Alaska.

As we've learned in recent hours, members of the station's news department openly discussed the possibility of reporting on the appearance of sex offenders at a campaign rally scheduled by Alaska GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller. They also laughed at the notion of sending out a Twitter alert on "any sort of chaos whatsoever," including Mr. Miller being punched.

Here's the complete transcript, courtesy of Andrew Breitbart's Big Government:

FEMALE REPORTER: That’s up to you because you have the
experience but that’s what I would do...I’d wait until you see who
shows up because that indicates we already know something...



FEMALE REPORTER: Child molesters...

MALE REPORTER: Oh yes...Joe Miller’s...uh...get a list of
people/campaign workers which one's the molester


FEMALE VOICE: You know that of all the people that will show up
tonight, at least one of them will be a registered sex offender.


MALE REPORTER: We need to find that one person...


FEMALE REPORTER: The one thing we can do is ....we won’t
know....we won’t know but if there is any sort of chaos whatsoever
we can put out a twitter/facebook alert: saying what the... ‘Hey Joe
Miller punched at rally.’

FEMALE REPORTER: Kinda like Rand Paul...I like that.


FEMALE REPORTER: That’s a good one.

We should also note that KTVA inadvertently triggered this firestorm. The station's assignment editor originally called the Miller campaign to inquire about the candidate's appearance on a KTVA newscast. But the editor failed to terminate the call on his iPhone, so the newsroom conversation was captured by an answering machine at Miller's campaign headquarters.

After confirming that the taped conversation originated at KTVA, the station now claims its staffers' comments are being "taken out of context." But from our perspective, the "context" seems clear enough. Look at the remarks from the female reporter, at the beginning of the exchange. Her observation about "waiting until you see who shows up," suggests that Channel 11 was tipped about someone--possibly a convicted sex offender--appearing at a Miller campaign event. If that individual could be identified, then KTVA had a potential blockbuster story, on the eve of a bitterly-contested Senate election. Based on the female reporter's comment--and the reaction of her colleagues--the conversation seems based on more than wishful thinking.

So, how did KTVA's assignment editor, Nick McDermott (or some other staffer), acquire this information? It certainly didn't come from the Miller campaign. Did it originate with one of his rivals, Republican incumbent (and write-in candidate) Lisa Murkowski, or Democrat Scott McAdams. Or, was someone at the station planning a dirty trick by inviting a sex offender to the rally, then confronting that individual (and the campaign) when they showed up?

Obviously, we don't know the details that spurred that lively conversation at KTVA. But it represents a new low for American journalism--if that is actually possible. If KTVA was aware that a sex offender was planning to attend the Miller rally (and they knew the parties behind the participant), then the Alaska station was a participant in a potential crime. Most sex offenders are banned from events that draw large crowds, since it may put them in contact with individuals (or groups of individuals) they must avoid. Going along with the "plan," KTVA put members of its viewing public at risk.

Again, let's assume that Channel 11 knew that a sex offender would be in the Miller crowd. They had an obligation to contact the campaign, and the local police. As far as we can tell, no one in the KTVA newsroom made a passing attempt to fulfill those obligations. They were clearly hoping for a "gotcha" encounter with the Republican Senate nominee, cooperating with a group--or individuals--who would provide that moment.

Doing a cursory search on KTVA, I learned that the station is locally owned and operated. I'm not sure how Channel 11's shareholders feel about this episode, but once upon a time, station owners would have convened an emergency meeting and fired the reporters and assignment manager involved in the incident, along with the news director. The conversation captured on tape reflects badly on the leadership of KTVA's news chief, Staci Feger, and her assistant, MJ Thim.

A fish rots from the head. the old axiom goes, and so does a newsroom. Judging from this incident, the news operation at Channel 11 in Anchorage is thoroughly corrupt; we can only be thankful that Mr. McDermott can't operate his iPhone properly. Otherwise, the news team at KTVA might have been able to pull off their little hit job, and put themselves in contention for an Edward R. Murrow Award, and maybe a local Emmy, for good measure.


Anonymous said...

Minor point; I have read elsewhere that the conversation was captured on the cell phone contacted by the news editor, and that the cell phone was the recording device. There is a little controversy one can read about "releasing the tapes" when no "tape" actually exists. It is a digital recording via cell phone.

MarkD said...

They don't pretend to be unbiased, and I treat them as I would any other liar I am forced to listen too.