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Media’s Timing Questioned on West Virginia Mining and NSA Eavesdropping

January 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: On one story, the media jumped too quickly; on the second, a major newspaper is questioned for moving too slowly. So, we’ve asked two media watchers to take a look with us: Alex Jones is director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University; Rachel Smolkin is managing editor of the American Journalism Review, a magazine that examines all aspects of the news media.

And welcome to both of you.

Story number one is the West Virginia mining accident when many newspaper readers around the country woke up to find headlines that 12 miners had survived when, in fact, they had tragically died. Television news also trumpeted the wrong information for several hours, all part of the confusion that night that led in the early hours of Wednesday morning to sorrow and anger on the part of the miners’ families.

Alex Jones starting with you, incorrect information clearly circulated at the site. How did it end up in so many newspapers and on TV?

ALEX JONES: Well, this is a huge public interest story, the kind of story that grips a country like ours. Everybody was watching it. The news media were there; of course the families were gathered there.

And a miscommunication happens when someone overheard or misoverheard a statement that they had found the miners, interpreted that to mean that they were alive, and started cell phone calls to family members, giving them the idea that their loved ones had been saved.

The bells started ringing, the governor spoke; everyone was clamoring. And it was very, very clear that something wonderful had happened, except it didn’t happen to be true.

This was not, of course, an official piece of information. But it’s very hard for me to fault the press in reporting that the families were saying they had gotten word that this had happened because that was literally the truth.

I think that when you can fault the press for, comes later in the process. And that was how they handled the story as it then evolved.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Rachel, explain for our audience how and when the decision is made to go to print. Obviously some of it is technology-driven. Some of it is logistics; some of it is just time-driven.

RACHEL SMOLKIN: Well, a lot of it is deadline-driven. And this is a story that happened right on deadline for many papers, particularly papers on the East Coast. Then you have your deadline looming, you’re hearing news that appears to be wonderful news, certainly news you want to get out to your readers; this is a miraculous ending to what seemed like it could be a very sad story, that these miners had been found.

So, of course, the press is going to want to include that in their newspapers. And it’s something that happened right around midnight, right on deadline; it appeared to be reliable coming on the record from people who seemed like they should know.

And I also have trouble faulting the media for going with this. This was not a case where, it was an election night, Bush versus Gore, and not all the votes had been counted yet. It wasn’t a case where they were relying on unnamed sources and went with something they shouldn’t. The information appeared to be correct. And they had to make a decision to go with it or not go with it.

I think the problem, if there is one, what the media maybe can be faulted for the some degree is not being a little more careful with their qualifiers. You have to be very careful about attributing information. And I think we in the media –

JEFFREY BROWN: Who is saying what at what time, yeah.

RACHEL SMOLKIN: Who is saying what and I think we in the media need to become comfortable with telling our readers and our viewers what it is that we don’t know.

In other words, here is what we’re hearing from the families but we’ve received no official confirmation from the people who are heading up the mine.

And certainly, on television as the hours went by, and there was no official confirmation, you need to start to ask as a reporter why not, why are we not hearing any official word on something that seems like it would be news they’d really want to get out?

But, of course, some of the newspapers didn’t have that luxury of time. And when you’re working on a breaking story, sometimes there are going to be errors that get out, if the information is faulty.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Alex, once the mistake is made, and found, and realized, how was it dealt with, or how should it be dealt with?

ALEX JONES: Well, this is where it gets a little funky, because on the one hand, you’ve got the problem of attribution. The Boston Globe, for instance, here in Boston had a banner headline across the front page that said, “Families Report,” or “Reportedly That,” — you know, they use the word “reportedly” to qualify it.

But in a banner headline, you know, that word “reportedly” — that qualifying word — gets lost. And I think that we can’t underestimate the power of how the news, and what kind of emphasis is put behind the news, even if it does have those qualifiers.

But there’s one thing that happened that night that I want to salute the company for because I think it was probably tempting perhaps not to do it the way they did. When the news got around, with the families, the bells were ringing, the company still did not really know what was happening. But relatively quickly, they began to get word that this might not be what happened. And so they waited until, you know, they could find out for sure.

What they found out for sure about 2:00 or so, or 2:30 morning, was that the miners, indeed, were dead. But instead of alerting the media, they alerted the families. They waited 40 minutes between 2:30 and about 3:10 to let the families know first.

Since the families didn’t find out, because of a news release or because of some journalist running up to them. I think that’s one of those moments that did not serve the newspapers that got embarrassed by having the wrong information on the front page the next day but were very consistent with the idea of what the priorities are in a situation like this, and I commend the company for doing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, topic number two concerns The New York Times and its reporting on the National Security Agency. It started on Dec. 16, he Times broke news of a domestic spying program by the NSA. The paper said it held the report for more than a year, initially at the request of the Bush administration. Then, this past Sunday, the Times public editor or ombudsman, Byron Calame, wrote an unusually strong column faulting the management of the paper for its “woefully inadequate” explanation of why it held the piece for so long.

In attempting to get his questions answered about the reporting and editing process, Calame said he encountered “stonewalling” from both the executive editor of the paper, Bill Keller, and the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger.

Rachel, first in looking at this relationship between an ombudsman and newspaper, how unusual is something like this?

RACHEL SMOLKIN: Well, it’s always a tricky relationship. The ombudsman’s job is to be a watchdog of sorts to hold the paper’s feet to the fire, pardon the cliché, making sure the reporting is accurate, that the editing process is the way it should be.

So it’s a tough relationship because here’s a person you’ve hired to criticize you essentially; nobody likes to be criticized and reporters were all very sensitive, too.

But it’s hard to understand why you wouldn’t answer the questions of your ombudsman. You have hired this person to be in the position, and Byron Calame is a very respected journalist. He raised a very interesting point in his story, which was — in his column that he did — which is that it’s possible The New York Times couldn’t answer some of the questions without compromising their sources.

And particularly on this story, they must make sure that they’re protecting their sources. Any information they gave about, well, we knew such and such on x date might for the Justice Department, which is doing an investigation, into this leak, narrow down the field who leaked the information. So that’s something the Times had to be very careful about.

At the same time, it’s hard to understand why they couldn’t make that point themselves to the public editor rather than making him for the make it or at least provide some kind of information or say that we really would look to talk to you; we do want to be accountable to our readers. But at the same time, we need to protect our sources.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And, Alex, what is your take on this story and what it says about the ombudsman and a newspaper’s relationship?

ALEX JONES: Well, I think what it really goes to is something that is fundamentally changed in the media. And that is the expectation of a transparency that we’ve never really had before. I mean, not until relatively recently. Ombudsmen are one aspect of it. Another aspect of it is, for instance, at The New York Times, an article that ran a week or two ago, about child pornography in which the reporter did some very complicated moves.

I mean, he got involved with the wife of the kid he was trying to save, he got involved with law enforcement, but he explained it and he felt obliged to, and it added greatly to the credibility of the story. That’s why I find it difficult to understand The New York Times’ very, very, you know, obstinate, as far as I’m concerned, refusal to explain why they won’t explain, if nothing else; explain why they can’t explain, if that is the case — and actually more to the point, though, why they held this very, very important story for a year.

I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that they could not offer a credible explanation that would satisfy people that did not compromise any aspect of the story, any sources or anything else. And I think they owe it, and I think oddly enough, they’re undermining their own, in my opinion, great service in publishing the story in the first place by not doing it.

One of the things that happened when Kurt Eichenwald, the reporter on the pornography story, made himself transparent about his decision — whether you agreed with his decisions or not you understood it — and that is where the credibility came from.

That’s what The New York Times needs right now. I don’t understand how one day they can do one thing and one day the next. This is something that obviously is being made as a decision by Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and by Bill Keller. I think they’ve made the wrong choices here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We’ll see how this develops. Alex Jones and Rachel Smolkin, thanks both.

RACHEL SMOLKIN: Thank you.