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Rushed Reporting is Nothing New

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 11th, 2012 · On Second Thought
No one likes to recall his failures.

But rushed, wrong CNN/Fox News stories on the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling reminded me of my descent into rushed, botched reporting. 

My job at UPI’s London bureau included turning messages and cables into news stories. A flash from Stockholm announced the Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine: Crick, Watson and Wilkins for DNA’s structure and significance. My one-paragraph bulletin went to New York where someone realized my explanation of DNA was wrong. Our next transmission was Urgent First Lede and Correct.

Fifty years later, the recollection still hurts.

Rushed reporting is nothing new. In the mid-19th century, Paul Reuter used carrier pigeons among European cities to obtain accurate financial news quickly. Old films show newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it.”
Today’s news media can’t wait for vote counts to declare victors.

You may remember the rare Enquirer extra edition on 9/11; we weren’t going to wait for the next morning.  

But screwing up an historic story goes beyond embarrassment. Cable news mistakenly said the Supreme Court struck down the individual mandate in Obama’s health care reform.

CNN/Fox News journalists went on air and online when they found what they expected: A majority said the Commerce Clause of the Constitution could not justify requiring Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine. CNN/Fox News journalists resumed reading and their colons must have quivered when they realized that five justices upheld that individual mandate under Congress’ taxing authority. Curiously, after correcting their error on camera, there was no rush for CNN/Fox News to correct the error online and on Twitter. Oh, well. It’s just cable.

My first inkling of trouble at CNN and Fox News came minutes after the Supreme Court decision. NPR’s Diane Rehm apologized for saying the court struck down the law. She blamed unnamed news sources. Others said it was CNN.
Huffingtonpost.com said trouble started early for CNN. Congressional correspondent Kate Bolduan read out the Court’s ruling which said that the individual mandate could not be upheld using the Commerce Clause.

“Wow, that’s a dramatic moment,” Wolf Blitzer said, as “SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE” flashed on the screen.

“The Justices have just gutted, Wolf, the centerpiece provision of the health care law,” John King said, adding that it was a “direct blow to President Obama.”

Bolduan eventually got it right but she blamed the Chief Justice for his “very confusing large opinion.” On the second read, she said, it was apparent that the network had gotten it wrong. “The entire law has been upheld, Wolf,” she said. She said that the decision was “thick” and “legally dense,” scanning the papers on camera.
“It’s a huge, huge victory for President Obama,” agile Blitzer said.

By then, anchor (and former Cincinnati broadcaster) Bill Hemmer told viewers,  “We have breaking news here on the Fox News Channel. The individual mandate has been ruled unconstitutional.”

But Megyn Kelly jumped in. “We’re getting conflicting information,” she said. Eventually, Fox News got it right and switched its TV headline.

Or, as NPR media reporter/critic David Folkenflik tweeted, “Cable: get it first, then get it right.” 

Huffingtonpost.com erred too. A Politics section tweet said the mandate was struck down. Another tweet retracted it.
Others got it right without delay, including SCOTUS.blog (Supreme Court Of The United States), the Associated Press and Bloomberg News.

I can image the whooping in the AP newsroom at the CNN/Fox News debacle, but an AP editor admonished colleagues to subdue their schadenfreude: “All. Please, immediately, stop taunting on social networks about CNN and others’ SCOTUS ruling mistake and the AP getting it right. That’s not the impression we want to reflect as an organization. Let our reporting take the lead.”

There also was a debate over who got it first and correct. Jimromenesko.com shares a note from Bloomberg News: “You reference an email that notes that the AP first reported the decision — by our records, Bloomberg moved the story first at 10:07:31; the AP moved the story at 10:07:55. I’ve attached screen shots of both headlines with timestamps.”

None of this rivals some of the great, hurried fuckups. Scripps papers — including Cincinnati Post — mistakenly ended World War I two days early. And I treasure the grinning president holding Chicago Tribune’s mistaken page 1 headline in 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”



• UC’s new Journalism Department in the College of Arts & Sciences — promoted from its historic status as a program within the college’s English Department — will have a new head: Jeffrey L. Blevins, late of Iowa State. He succeeds my longtime friend and colleague, Jon C. Hughes, the key figure in the growth of UC journalism education.

When he read the recruiting ad, Blevins, 43, said in a telephone interview, “This would be a perfect opportunity for me.” 

Unlike many j-schools, UC’s department is growing, it’s a happy blend of traditional and new media values and skills, and it’s a chance to be in charge, Blevins said.

A St. Louis native, he said “another” urban river town with a diverse population also is appealing. He starts Aug. 15. Until then, Hughes is interim head.

Blevins doesn’t yield to doomsayers who damn expanded journalism education while jobs vanish. Many papers — especially family-owned — still are profitable, and despite highly publicized bloodletting in traditional news media, Blevins said, there are jobs for UC grads because “there’s still a great demand for news media.”

He was impressed by the students’ critical and entrepreneurial thinking and how they expect to make changing markets, technology and opportunities work for them. Blevins also was pleased by UC students who want to work with the news media without making journalism their careers.

Blevins’ 2001 Ph.D. is in telecommunications from Ohio University. His teaching and research have been in communications law and policy and electronic media industries. Newspaper experience came in Illinois as a sports reporter.  


• Jon Hughes built UC’s journalism program within the English Department over three decades. Rather than retire, he stayed until the Board of Trustees approved independent department status and Jeff Blevins’ contract as the new department head. Hughes also took care of new department’s shift from quarters to semesters as part of a wider campus change. Hughes is staying through Fall semester to ease the leadership handover, and after a sabbatical, plans to return  to teaching. (Disclosure: I’ve taught for Hughes as a visiting professor and adjunct instructor.)


• Rob Portman’s record as a federal appointee and senator make him fair game for analysis and/or criticism. Letters to the Enquirer display biases that readers brought to what Enquirer reporters wrote in a major profile. Some say it’s a hatchet job. Others say it was a blow job. As in so many divisive issues, readers biases dictate their reactions rather than the content itself. 


• Portman made page 1 of the New York Times too. The opening anecdote, about his effective role playing as the Democrat in GOP presidential debate practice, was delightful. And John McCain has a sense of humor. 


• A recent, major Economist story found a lot that isn’t up to P&G’s image or aspirations, especially when compared to global competitor Unilever. If our local news media suggest problems in P&G’s executive suite, the Economist suggests why. Among the biggest problems, it says, are P&G’s inability to innovate and adapt quickly to foreign, and especially, emerging markets where poor people buy little packets of stuff that we buy in bulk at discount warehouses. A subtext is a question: can P&G cope with changing multinational markets from Cincinnati (as opposed to, say, London, where the Economist and Unilever are based ...)


The New York Times devoted a recent Tuesday Science section cover to a fascinating suburban Cincinnati company that designed a famous roller coaster that’s not at Kings Island. The Times focused on the 6,500-foot-long Voyage at Holiday World theme park in southern Indiana because it’s the crown jewel of Gravity Group and the key elements still are made of wood. It’s a great read with F-forces and “air time” and all of the other roller coaster goodies. 


• Cincinnati will be host to a major Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. This is the public face. Behind it are decades of bitter international academic infighting over right to see, read, translate and publish scroll texts. And, of course, they have a Cincinnati twist.

From the scrolls’ discovery in the 1940s and 1950s, a small group of Christian scholars controlled access and the ability to publish them. Faculty at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College were not among the favored few. However, HUC accepted photocopies of the scrolls lest anything happen to the originals. As it was explained to me years ago when I still was reporting about religion, HUC promised that it would not make those photocopy images available to anyone not approved by the original group of scholars.

Then-president Alfred Gottschalk was firm; HUC’s word was its bond. Frustrated HUC faculty included Ben Zion Wacholder.

Undeterred, Wacholder and Christian doctoral candidate Martin Abegg obtained a book with every word in the scrolls and their contexts. They realized it could be used to deduce what the originals said without violating the letter if not the spirit of HUC’s promise of secrecy. Abegg applied his computer skills and the two men reconstructed highly accurate texts of the unpublished scrolls on their Macintosh computer. Abegg later referred to that as “reverse engineering.”

Or as Abegg put it in a letter to a celebration of Wacholder’s life, their first book meant that “a 40-year embargo to the access of the Dead Sea Scrolls became a curiosity of history in two short months. There are very few today who would not agree that Ben Zion Wacholder’s decision to publish was just. An entire and unique generation of Jewish scholars had been denied the privilege of studying what amounted to an important new chapter in the history of ancient Israel and Ben was not about to see such an injustice continue.”

I remember the photo that accompanied my scoop on their achievement: Wacholder looking at hugely magnified images of letters on the computer screen; it was the only way he could see them. Wacholder died last year. Abegg now is co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in British Columbia where he holds the Ben Zion Wacholder Professorship. 


• I hope the Enquirer’s misleading headline Tuesday doesn’t dissuade anyone from going on a commercial river rafting trip. The headline said a Cincinnati Public School student drowned on a rafting trip. According to the Enquirer, the rafts were beached and the teenager walked into the river and drowned. Like so many Tristate residents, she apparently was clueless about the power of rivers and risks of dropoffs. Whether she could swim was not clear. The rafting trip only put her on the beach and, I’d bet, if she wore a life jacket on the raft, she took it off on shore. Bad mistake. Deadly things can happen within a few feet of the shore line once someone goes into a river. In our Miami Group Sierra Club kayak and canoe schools, students and instructors must wear a fitted life jacket anywhere within 10 feet of the waterline. That’s true of lakes and river where we offer instruction. 


• It’s no longer news that a trivial local story can attract  national news media if there is sufficient buzz on social media. The latest is the life guard in Florida who was fired for leaving his assigned patch of beach to help a floundering swimmer nearby in the surf. What’s curious is the New York Times misdirected exercise in discretion. Neither its print edition delivered in Cincinnati nor its online version of the same story named the “private company” that fired the lifeguard. Curious. Other media showed no such reticence: Jeff Ellis Management.  


• Long ago at the start of the New Media Age, a friend warned against putting anything in an email that I would not want to face in court. Since then, of course, the news media have been busy reporting emails that, on reconsideration, never should have been written or sent. Tweets deserve the same scrutiny but happily for the rest of us, they, like emails, don’t get that scrutiny.

So I enjoyed this from jimromenesko.com: “I posted an email from a SheKnows.com editor who told writers to click on ads next to their stories ‘100 times if you want to.’ Another editor’s email encouraged staff to click on Panera ads because ‘we want to keep them around.’

“Sorry, SheKnows, but Panera isn’t sticking around. ‘As soon as Panera was made aware of this issue, we immediately pulled our advertising from SheKnows.com,’ says a spokeswoman. ‘Panera is strongly opposed to practices of this kind.’” Romenesko added that both editors were suspended for their emails.

• Nothing encourages humility like learning how few people know anything about what we report. So given how few people watch network TV news or read daily papers, it’s no surprise how few knew that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare’s individual mandates were constitutional under Congress’ taxing powers. 

Poynter Online’s Andrew Beaujon said 30 percent of Americans surveyed didn’t know how the United States Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act. Another 15 percent thought the law was overturned, says the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Nineteen percent of Republicans, 13 percent of independents and 11 percent of Democrats thought the court had struck down the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional.

Age factored into knowledge of the ruling, too, Poynter and Pew reported: 24 percent of those younger than 30 followed news about the court’s health care decision very closely. That compares with 42 percent of those 30 to 49 and majorities of those 50 to 64 (56 percent) and 65 and older (62 percent). Just 37 percent those younger than 30 know that the court upheld most of the law’s provisions; majorities of older age groups know that the court upheld most provisions. 



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