Friday, July 20, 2012

When Journalism Was

Hard to believe, but once upon a time, serious journalists cared about reporting a story accurately.

Thirty years ago, if you were watching ABC's coverage of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, you saw a rather unusual outburst from anchorman Frank Reynolds. Early reports suggested Mr. Reagan had not been hit by gunfire, but that information was quickly proved to be erroneous. At that point, Reynolds literally shouted at an off-camera staffer to "speak up" as more details arrived.

A few moments later, various news outlets began reporting that Presidential Press Secretary James Brady had died from a head wound he received, and that President Regan had not only been hit by gunfire, but had died as well. Both accounts were quickly corrected, but Reynolds appeared noticeably upset on camera and angrily snapped at the newsroom staff:

"Let's get it nailed down...somebody...let's find out. Let's get it straight so we can report this thing accurately."

What many viewers didn't know is that Reynolds was a close friend of Jim Brady and had developed a friendship with the Reagans during the 1976 presidential campaign. When Mr. Reynolds died from complications from cancer and liver failure in 1983, the President and First Lady attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Two years later, Reynolds was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. Clearly, Mr. Reynolds had a personal connection to the Reagans and Jim Brady, but as a journalist, he cared deeply about getting the story straight during a national tragedy.

My, my, how times have changed.

Flash forward to this morning, and ABC's early coverage of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In a moment that represents a new low for broadcast journalism, Brian Ross, the "Chief Investigative Correspondent" for ABC News, speculated that James Holmes (the man arrested for the Colorado rampage) might be affiliated with the Tea Party. Ross offered his little "scoop" to Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos, who voiced no concerns about the report, which was little more than a circumstantial accusation, based on what he found on the internet (we can only imagine how Frank Reynolds would have reacted).

Politico (among other sites) has the video.

As a reformed journalist, the "reporting" on ABC was simply jaw-dropping. Their claim was the result of linking a common name--there are at least 30 "Jim Holmes" in the Denver area--and his affiliation with the local Tea Party, which appeared on the organization's web site.

Quite predictably, Mr. Ross got it wrong. Very wrong. Turns out that Jim Holmes who belongs to the Colorado Tea Party is a 54-year-old Hispanic man. The individual with the same name who was arrested for the theater killings is white, roughly 30 years younger, and a PhD student at the University of Colorado.

Within a couple of hours, ABC admitted its report was inaccurate and issued an apology. Sorry guys, that won't cut it. The real question is why you put out information that "wasn't properly vetted." And, with more than 30 men who have that name in the Denver region, why did ABC focus on the individual with Tea Party ties? Sadly, I think we know the answer to that one.

And don't hand me that crap about the "heat of the moment," and seeing the "editing process on the air in a breaking news situation." When Ronald Reagan was shot, all three broadcast networks got it wrong, reporting that the President had died from his wounds. That didn't matter to Frank Reynolds; he didn't care that NBC and CBS made the same mistake; his only concern was that ABC was accurate in its reporting.

I didn't see anything remotely approaching those standards on ABC this morning. Just a couple of agenda-driven hacks, trying to make a tragedy fit their template. When broadcast journalism was a real profession, this stuff never made it on the air and if it did, the "reporter" was usually looking for a new job the next day.

Here's hoping that the Jim Holmes who was smeared in the ABC report gets himself a lawyer and sues the network. I'll even donate the first $100 towards a legal fund for Mr. Holmes.

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