Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Where Were the Lawyers?

Rolling Stone got it wrong for a simple reason:   it forgot how to do basic fact checking.   Journalists are not human microphone stands.   When someone tells a compelling and riveting story (think Bill O'Reilly), a journalist doesn't just believe it.   A journalist ALWAYS wants verification.  

So if there's a gang rape at a fraternity, there are lots of people at the frat to go see and lots of questions to ask them.   The victim has friends she told.   A journalist goes to talk with them.   What were they told by the victim, when, how?   Do the stories match or are there major inconsistencies which raise questions about the truth of what the journalist has been told by the victim?

The Rolling Stone reporter didn't interview the friends.   And I won't recount the numerous basic reporting mistakes pointed out in Columbia Journalism School's report on Rolling Stone's near total lack of proper editorial oversight.  There's another question. 

Where were the lawyers?

If journalists have forgotten how to do basic fact checking,  why did the lawyers fail to do their jobs?  

At CBS, Lara Logan's story on Benghazi demonstrated the basic point:  CBS news managers have forgotten how to do basic fact checking.  The scene is described as Al Qaeda fighters everywhere.  Morgan Jones (real name - Dylan Davies) tells Lara Logan that in this incredibly dangerous situation an Al Qaeda fighter just walks up to him so Jones hits him with the butt of his rifle.  Oh sure.  It's an incredibly violent situation.  And the Al Qaeda fighter walks up to say howdie-do and just lets himself be hit in the face.  Listen to this segment of the interview and ask yourself one question:  who is dumb enough to believe this?   

Lara Logan's story could have been blown up with 15 minutes of checking the CBS news archive.   But let's give the news managers the benefit of the doubt.   They've simply forgotten how to do basic fact checking.   They've forgotten that a  journalist is not supposed to be a human microphone stand.   They've forgotten that journalism requires verification. The question remains:   where were the lawyers?   

Legal review is fairly basic.   You go sentence by sentence.  How do we know this is true?   How do we know it is fair?   What is the evidence?   Who are the sources?  Who witnessed this?   What documentation is there? 

If Rolling Stone and CBS have decided they won't fire the reporter and news managers who failed to do journalism 101,  they should at least fire the lawyers.  

When legal review fails, really embarrassing, brand degrading and potentially costly things happen.    


Friday, April 3, 2015

To Find Great Stories Ask One Question: WHY?

The president of Al Jazeera America Kate O'Brian was just at Kent State to receive the prestigious Robert G. McGruder Award for Diversity.    Prior to Al Jazeera, Kate had spent 30 years at ABC including two stints working with Peter Jennings.    And one thing she said about Jennings that should resonate with all students and journalists everywhere is that Peter Jennings was insatiably curious.   He was, says Kate, always asking questions.

And as one reviews American journalism, there is a depressing absence of asking the one question that leads to great stories:  WHY?

WHY is the United States the only industrialized nation where thousands of families go bankrupt from medical bills?

Why is healthcare in America so much more expensive than anywhere else?

Why do local TV reporters not question their members of Congress on any issues of substance?

WHY do athletes get more full scholarships to college than academic students?  

For March Madness, WHY are the teams so black and the cheerleaders so white?  

A public policy question:  WHY is the highest paid public employee in state after state either a football coach or a basketball coach?

In the current reporting on Iran, WHY do U.S. news organizations so often fail to review the crucial historical context of our relationship with Iran?   When Iran's leader Mohammed Mosaddeq wanted to nationalize the oil fields and share the wealth with the Iranian people, the United States did not want that.   The CIA orchestrated a coup and an American puppet dictator, the Shah, was installed.   The Shah imprisoned or tortured or killed all political opposition.  WHY did the United States support such behavior?

WHY do we teach a sanitized Disneyland version of American history in our public schools?

WHY don't certain members of Congress believe in science?

WHY in the run up to the Iraq war when Rumsfeld and Bush and Cheney and Rice were running around the country saying, "Saddam Hussein used weapons of mass destructions against his own people," WHY did reporters not ask, "and what did the United States do when Saddam did that?"   Answer:  The United States continued to support Saddam Hussein.   WHY?   

Why does CNN talk about the same damn thing all day long? 

To improve the state of journalism, we need to be asking more WHY questions.   

When journalism fails, bad things happen.