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World-Class Media Screwups of 2013

By Ben L. Kaufman · January 8th, 2014 · Curmudgeon Notes
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Jaw-dropping stupidity

Justine Sacco was head of public relations for a major American company, IAC. Responsibilities involved, among many, The Beast news/opinion website. Before flying on vacation to her native South Africa, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.” It was retweeted thousands of times while she was unaware and incommunicado on her flight to Cape Town. Her bosses trashed her and she didn’t know that her father called her a “fucking idiot” and described her tweet as “unforgiveable.” 

On the ground in AIDS-plagued South Africa, Sacco learned that the tweet cost her the job. Then she issued an apology in perfect PR language. 

Golden grovel

Crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford scuttled away after repeatedly and falsely insinuating that Toronto Star city hall reporter Daniel Dale is a pedophile. 

Dale had served him with a notice of his intent to sue for libel. As Dale presciently warned, “We’ll see if he is willing to repeat his lies under penalty of perjury.” The confrontation began when Mayor Ford told Canadian TV interviewer Conrad Black, “Daniel Dale is in my backyard taking pictures. I have little kids. He’s taking pictures of little kids. I don’t want to say that word but you start thinking what this guy is all about.”

Next, according to Huffington Post Canada, the mayor told a sports radio show that he caught Dale “in his backyard” taking pictures of his kids in May of 2012. 

Dale’s paper gave its reporter space for a point-by-point rebuttal. “I didn’t call the mayor a liar,” Dale added. “Perhaps he was somehow misled by an excitable neighbor. Perhaps he somehow thought he saw something he didn’t see. He tried to get me arrested, to destroy my career; I decided to correct him gently, deferentially. Not any more. Not 19 months later. Rob Ford is lying about me, he knows it, and it’s vile.”

Facing a libel suit, Ford recanted and apologized, saying, “(T)here was absolutely no basis for the statement I made about Mr. Dale taking pictures of children, or for any insinuations I made. I should not have said what I did and I wholly retract my statements and apologize to Mr. Dale without reservation for what I said.”

Dale dropped his plans to sue. 

Willful blindness No. 1

Equally curious in the Toronto brouhaha (above) was interviewer Conrad Black’s response when a CBC radio reporter asked why Black let Mayor Rob Ford’s pedophile allegations go unchallenged. 

Fact-checking was not his job, Black, a former newspaper publisher, said. Yahoo News quoted Black as saying, “I didn’t do the editing. I wasn’t going to leap from my chair and throttle the mayor.

I was his guest in his office and he can say what he wants. And if he says slanderous things he’ll have to face the consequences of that and I don’t doubt the Star would not be hesitant to sue him if it really is a slander. But I think it’s a bit much to expect me to know that. I mean I haven’t made a study of every aspect of the mayor’s controversy.”

Black added that he didn’t take Ford’s comment to insinuate pedophilia — perhaps only that the reporter was a Peeping Tom. After hearing Dale’s full account of events, Yahoo News added, Black “conceded that it appeared Ford may have lied during the interview.”

Willful blindness No. 2

American news media won’t step beyond reporting of infectious disease outbreaks and connect the dots. Unvaccinated Americans can be perfect subjects to spread contagion brought by travelers from abroad. 

Victims often are children whose parents are misled by celebrities and quacks into rejecting the overwhelming evidence that vaccinations work. If there is a thread in the critics’ arguments, it’s that vaccination carries some risk to any individual, so it’s safer to avoid that risk, however miniscule. That’s a victory for what they call “common sense” over decades of public health and epidemiology evidence. 

For instance, vaccination largely eradicated measles among Americans by 2000. However, the Centers for Disease Control says 2013 is one of the worst recent years for imported measles contagion and spread: eight outbreaks, 200 cases and counting. Victims can thank former Playmate Jenny McCarthy and like-minded fearmongers for sowing suspicion of the childhood MMR vaccination for measles/mumps/rubella. So far, CDC estimates that 98 percent of the 2013 victims were never vaccinated. “This isn’t the failure of a vaccine; it’s the failure to vaccinate,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden told reporters. 

Fox News again 

Jimromenesko.com found this, datelined Orlando, Fla.: “Bidding has closed on eBay for artwork created by George Zimmerman, the Florida gunman who killed a teenager and later took his own life following his conviction.” Wrong and wrong again. Zimmerman was acquitted and he was alive when Fox reported his death. Fox News reporters and their bosses must be the only Floridians so ignorant of one of the biggest stories in years … in Florida. 

Good news (for a change) at CBS News

Correspondent John Miller — a former national security official — was the presenter on CBS News’ embarrassing puff job on the NSA late last year. AP reports that Miller is leaving to join NYPD. That might deflect some criticism of CBS News for giving him the assignment. 

Bad law yields good results

I’m no fan of shield laws; it’s a form of licensing that allows legislators and judges to decide who’s a journalist or what journalism comprises. 

However, a New York appeals court said that state’s shield law protects Manhattan-based Fox News reporter Jana Winter from being forced to name her confidential sources. Her story involved James Holmes, accused in the mass killing in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012. 

A Colorado judge ordered Winter to appear and name cops who said that Holmes mailed a notebook depicting violence to a psychiatrist.  

The New York appeals court said Winter could ignore the Colorado subpoena. “There is a substantial likelihood that a New York reporter will be compelled to divulge the identity of a confidential source (or face a contempt sanction) if required to appear in the other jurisdiction — a result that would offend the core protections of the shield law, a New York public policy of the highest order.”

Don’t tell the children

Time Inc., the nation’s largest magazine publisher, openly embraces what long has been a hidden badge of shame in American mainstream journalism: letting business execs actively influence reporting. Time Inc. says its reorganization will have journalists reporting to business execs. I’d add that in the hunt for revenue, the bosses can’t afford to be passive overseers, so don’t expect Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and People to flag stories ordered to entice advertisers or promote advertisers’ interests. 

The wall between business and editorial always has been porous, but Time Inc. isn’t sneaking through loopholes to promote its business interests with its journalism. It’s adapted the famous Reaganism for its own: “Tear down this wall.” 

Underappreciated story

The Los Angeles Times says high school teacher Victoria Bennett barred famous University of Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian from pulling star defensive back Uchenna Nwosu out of her honors government class for a recruiting pitch. 

Bennett is a Sarkisian fan and she told Sarkisian it would be wonderful if her students played college football, “but academics is my No. 1. This is what I do. This is it.”

She teaches at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, Calif. Sarkisian hung around and talked to Nwosu after class. As it turned out, Bennett did Sarkisian a favor. Nwosu already had committed to nearby USC … where Sarkisian since has become head coach. 

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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