Even TV journalists have to say they’re sorry sometimes

Friday, July 24, 1998

The continuing saga of the discredited CNN story about the use of lethal nerve gas during the Vietnam War is an unnerving monument to the reason television journalists hardly ever say they’re sorry. This is the apology that simply won’t die.

The story aired on June 7 and set off a firestorm of criticism from public and military officials, veterans groups and others. Three weeks ago, CNN retracted the story, fired two producers, accepted the resignation of another, and reprimanded its correspondent.

These very public acts of contrition were accompanied by profuse apologies, but rather than settling the matter, they only seem to have aggravated it.

The original apology was aired several times and took up a lot of air time on June 7. Follow-up apologies ran on the CNN news magazine where the story appeared originally. The network commissioned an independent report. The Pentagon commissioned its own report. Then early this week, the fired producers issued a 78-page report of their own.

In the meantime, the whole thing has been the subject of countless news reports, op-ed pieces, talk shows and journal articles, as well as legal actions: CNN already has settled with one of the retired military officers quoted in the story and is facing a possible $6 million lawsuit from another.

And this just in: A dispatch from Manhattan, Kan., informs us that the reprimanded correspondent, Peter Arnett, now believes that the Pentagon report settles the matter.

Not very likely.

CNN’s painful experience justifies in the minds of many TV journalists their unofficial policy on corrections, clarifications and confessions, which briefly stated is: “The less said, the better.”

This explains the stealth correction last week by one of television’s most respected journalists. Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press,” reported on Wednesday morning that “people close to Ken Starr” said the special prosecutor was investigating whether Secret Service agents “facilitated” the reported affair between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. When Russert reported the story on MSNBC at noon, however, he attributed the information to “congressional sources.” A similar story reported that evening by a different NBC correspondent used “congressional sources” also.

Neither the noon or morning report explained the change, which other media alertly reported was the result of a call from Charles Bakaly, Starr’s spokesman, complaining that no such information had come from the special counsel’s office.

Predictably, Russert came under criticism from a variety of sources for failing to acknowledge that he was correcting an error or changing the story. In his defense, just how and where would he have made the correction? The options boil down to two: Either a CNN-style debacle or no mention at all.

In other words, unless the correction rises to the level of an international incident, TV news prefers to forget about it.

The reason for that seems to be that, for all its years of existence and for all the creativity of its practitioners, television never has developed the equivalent of the newspaper’s “corrections and clarification column.”

Why? Veteran TV news executive Gene Mater has one explanation: “Television news has nothing but a Front Page. There is no Page 2.” Which is to say that there just is no convenient or effective place to tuck away corrections and clarifications of news reports that weren’t quite right at the time they were broadcast.

True, many of the print media’s apologies and retractions, especially recently, have been significant enough to warrant airing on the front pages. But more routine clarifications and corrections are tucked away on page 2 or 3 or elsewhere inside the newspaper.

Without the equivalent of the Page 2 column, television creates the impression that its journalists are just too arrogant to clarify, correct or apologize.

TV news needs to find such a vehicle and soon. If one had been available to ABC News, for example, it could have gracefully and quickly corrected, clarified or confirmed reporting about the semen-stained dress or the allegations of a White House staffer’s having observed an intimate moment between Clinton and Lewinsky the way similar “scoops” were handled by The Dallas Morning News and The Wall Street Journal.

But these sorts of things are neither the most frequent nor the most blatant occurrences for which TV news owes its viewers an apology. Not a day goes by that ordinary inaccuracies and errors don’t pepper news reports. Not a day goes by that someone somewhere in television doesn’t commit a journalistic or ethical lapse in securing celebrities and newsmakers for TV talk shows. Money changes hands. Promises of promotion are made. Assurances of kid-glove treatment are issued.

Just a few examples:

Last week, the premiere of the Fox network’s new “Fox Files” magazine featured Catherine Crier’s interview with Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, a real “get” in TV parlance. While Fox says the interview was a major coup, rivals say that the interview came because Fox had agreed to purchase for a fee (estimates range from $250,000 to $2 million) a package deal including rights to home movies and still photos of the late princess.

Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS, details other such examples of TV news magazines pushing ethical bounds for well-known “gets” in the most recent issue of Columbia Journalism Review.

According to Grossman, ABC’s Barbara Walters wrote to Gen. Colin Powell: “I hope that the book is coming along well and that we might start thinking about when we might do an interview based on your book. We would give it an enormous amount of time and attention, as well as a huge audience. I promise it will be a wonderful send-off for the book.” Walters got the interview.

Trying to land an interview with Brenda L. Hoster, who had accused Army Sgt. Maj. Gene C. McKinney of sexual harassment, ABC’s Sam Donaldson wrote to her lawyer: “We think what happened to her is both shocking and, sadly, all too common. … We aren’t just ‘after the ratings’ but after a change in attitudes toward sexual harassment.” Hoster accepted Donaldson’s warm invitation “and got the favorable on-air treatment she was led to expect,” wrote Grossman.

He lists other such examples, such as Diane Sawyer’s softball interview with Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley and Connie Chung’s near-stalking of skater Tonya Harding in an effort to get an interview.

Just as disturbing is the practice of hiring independent “story brokers” to serve as go-betweens to facilitate the exchange of money for home videos, photos, diaries, or letters, with the “get” coming along as part of the package.

Add these to such misleading practices as staged events, simulations, selective editing, and capitulation to advertisers, plaintiffs’ lawyers and pressure groups, and TV news has much to confess.

Mistakes and missteps are inevitable in the furious and frantic world of television news. That’s why it needs to find a better way to correct, clarify and, on occasion, apologize.

Confession may be good for the soul, but in the news business it is absolutely essential to credibility.