By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Revisionist punditry

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi today has a great catch. As I noted yesterday, Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell posted an instant analysis of the West Virginia mining tragedy in which he called the media’s performance “disturbing and disgraceful.” Vennochi reports that, later in the day, Mitchell toned it down, eliminating the word “disgraceful.” Talk about backtracking. Mitchell’s revised column is online here.

“In a telephone interview,” Vennochi writes (link now fixed), “Mitchell said his first take on the miracle mine rescue might eventually show the same rush to judgment for which he was criticizing journalists.” Gee, Greg, you think? Vennochi continues:

“One question that has to be asked,” said Mitchell, “is ‘how much did the media spread the news? … the first question is whether the media carried the rumors, spread the rumors.'” Mitchell acknowledges that he does not know the answer to the question; and until the journalists on the scene recount their personal timetable and confirming sources, it is risky to draw conclusions about the quality of the journalism.

The Associated Press, by most accounts, played a key role in spreading the news — a false rumor, as we soon learned — that 12 of the 13 miners had been found alive. Here’s the top of an E&P story on what happened:

The Associated Press, which carried to newspapers around the world false reports on trapped miners being rescued in West Virginia late Tuesday night, said in a statement this afternoon that it had reported “accurately” based on information “provided by credible sources — family members and the governor.”

The governor again. In a perfect world, journalists would check everything. But for the life of me, I can’t see anything wrong with the media’s relying on the word of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. Authoritative, on-the-record sources sometimes turn out to be wrong. But you can’t blame the messenger.

Much of the criticism directed at the media has focused on the fact that they didn’t wait to hear from the mining company before running with the story. On the face of it, though, I’m not sure why journalists should have considered company officials — who weren’t available — more credible than the governor. Take this to its logical extreme, and presumably the media should not have reported that the miners were alive unless all 12 of them suddenly appeared at the Baptist church where family members were waiting.

There are plenty of reasons for the media to engage in self-flagellation. This isn’t one of them.

Follow-up: Greg Gatlin of the Boston Herald caught Mitchell’s switch-a-roo as well. Gatlin’s also got some good stuff on AP’s first dispatches, which weren’t quite as reliant on Gov. Manchin as its statement would have you believe.

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  1. mike_b1

    Maybe, Dan, maybe. But the question I would have asked is, How did the governor know? He wasn’t down in that mine. At a minimum, every report should have ID’d the source of the “good news.” And I don’t know that Mitchell cutting the word disgraceful out of his piece is that big a deal. In fact, by criticizing the criticism JV is attempting to divert the issue. Let’s stick to the main point: the media misreported what happened, pure and simple.

  2. Bill Baar

    The old saying in the Military is the first reports back from the battlefield are always wrong.You’d think the Press would undestand that maxim in a situation like this.

  3. Anonymous

    FYI, see today’s CJR Daily this story.

  4. Anonymous

    those who can, do. those who can’t, criticize.members of the media, as opposed to THE MEDIA, screw up. so do doctors, lawyers, native american chiefs, etc. intelligent design apparently missed on perfection.but like any job and any business, you do the best you have with what you got. and on the record statements from a governor is pretty damned credible to most people.when romney declares for president, should we wait for his name to be printed on the ballot?the unfortunate part of print v electronic is no one runs a tivo 24/7 so when television screws up, not everyone has it saved. internet is constantly changing and few look for cached pages to see what has evolved. only print stays around. but by the same token, only print runs corrections to own up to mistakes. when’s the last time you saw an editor’s note on cnn or fox? yeah, i’mn still checking the calendar too.justified criticism is always justified. and credible. gang bodykicking may be fun but there’s not a lot of solutions or credibility in it.

  5. Chalicechick

    Re: The first reports back from the BattlefieldOf all the major news stories that have existed in the last few years, when was the last time a major news source made a mistake this big?One could argue that it was the Newsweek story on the Koran getting urinated on, but I’d say the best comparison is the NY Post story that said Gephardt was going to be Kerry’s running mate.The truth is “the first reports back from the battlefield” are CORRECT and OVERWHELMING percent of the time. CC

  6. mike_b1

    Despite complaints from the Bushies and the country’s rightwing media, the Newsweek story was ultimately shown to be true.

  7. mike_b1

    “When romney declares for president, should we wait for his name to be printed on the ballot?Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no comparison between a firsthand declaration (Romney) and a secondhand report (the miners).You aren’t taking into account the chaos of the moment. And neither, as it has shown, did the media.

  8. Bill Baar

    Well, let’s see,1) CBS and the forged Bush documents?2) The Mao Book? 3) Here’s a good one on the AP and Narnia’s walk out from the WTO. Get training on crisis managment –and there is such a thing– and one of the first things you learn about is controling rumors and the misinformation that flows under stress… that’s clearly what happened here. If professionals had been involved at the company, state, and press levels; this would not have happened. This is not a cheap shot.There is a bigger issue though of what’s going on with MSM, the pressure they’re under to go with stories, the technology,,,, that’s causing some changes and MSM is not handling change well. Few stogy institutions do and that’s what most of these institutions are..real stogy I think.

  9. Bill Baar

    Katrina Rape stories another classic of when you should discount the first reports from the front lines.The stories really abound if you do a google search.It may be an example of how so many people do lack military training now and do lack the ability to understand how to function under stress and the importance of conveying accurate information back, and how to weigh information your getting from some one under severe stress…But bottom line is I think everyone wanted to believe good news here and chucked sense out the windon. It’s not a bad instinct but had a tragic outcome in this instance……a lot of lessons here.

  10. Bill Baar

    CJR Daily has it right.All untrue — but written with stunning confidence. Nowhere in this Post piece is there any mention of sources. It doesn’t even refer to the one official, Joe Thornton, deputy secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, who was widely quoted and whom the New York Times at least referred to in its lead: “Forty-one hours after an explosion trapped 13 men in a West Virginia coal mine here, family members and a state official said 12 of the miners had been found alive Tuesday night.”[***]And yet the most frightening aspect of this incident is what it suggests about how reporters normally function in a high-pressure crisis situation. Do they always rely on such poorly-sourced information?It’s the stunning confidence they’re right that gets MSM into so many problems of late. Put a little pressure into the mix and it’s a stunning display of incompetence.

  11. Steve

    Kevin Drum has an interesting post on the media coverage of this story today. He quotes Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News, pointing to the responsibility of the people in charge to get the real story out:”Don’t blame the media. First, the mine owners did nothing to correct the misinformation for three hours, a mistake they admit. However, I also know that in past accidents, the press office of the Mine Safety and Health Agency has played a significant, and sometimes exclusive role, in successfully communicating with the families and media, allowing the company to deal with the crisis.”

  12. Anonymous

    Good to see that reporters are such pit bulls when it comes to sniffing out things like one of their critics changing around a couple words. Now, when it comes to writing “12 alive” when it is actually “12 dead,” or focusing on the rocketing crime rate in the city DURING the mayoral race instead of after, or looking into government spin on WMDs in the buildup to the war, etc., well, not so much.

  13. Paul

    For the life of me, *I* don’t see a thing that the Press did wrong. This wasn’t a “singe-sorce” story that was reported as an exclusive. This was the Governor announcing that 12 miners were alive. And it wasn’t just announced to the press — it was also announced to the waiting friends and families. Where is the criticism of the Governor? He’s the one who really should be eating crow. I’m beginning to think we blog-readers and -commentators are becoming so ready to crucify someone that were aren’t stepping back and first thinking if there really *is* something to criticize and second are we criticizing the correct thing.

  14. BeninSalem

    It seems to me that there are two truths in a situation like this:1. News reports are only as good as the sources they are based on;2. Reporters have a responsibility to be clear about where they got (and did not get) their information, so that readers (viewers, listeners, etc.) can judge its validity.With that in mind, I find it difficult to criticize reports like the one that landed on my front step in yesterday morning’s Globe: “12 miners reportedly found alive.” That story was very clear about its sources, and very clear that this was an uncomfirmed account. When I read it, I immediately turned on my radio to hear an update, because I knew that it wasn’t final.On the other hand, there’s plenty of room to criticize the Globe’s later story (which Mark Jurkowitz reports only actually made it to about 7,000 people): “Jubilation in W. Va… 12 miners found alive deep in mine after harrowing wait.” Reading that, and stories like it, I would have no idea that there was doubt, and wouldn’t run straight to my radio.In all of this, we have to recognize that newspapers have deadlines. At some point, they have to run with what they’ve got. The Globe didn’t have the luxury of waiting until all the facts were in, at least not if they wanted to put out a newspaper. That left three choices: Run the rumor as fact, print the rumor and make it clear it was unconfirmed, or withold the rumor until it was certain. The first one is obviously irresponsible, and those organizations, including (briefly)the Globe, that made that choice deserve criticism. The third option is better, but not by a lot–newspapers have to be as up to date as possible if they want to be relevant at all. It seems to me that the second, middle-ground option is the best one. Run what you know, make it clear how you know it, and let readers decide how much faith to attach.

  15. Bill Baar

    Wait till the families start suing the press.Then you’ll see some interesting stuff.

  16. Anonymous

    unless howard cooper is the families’ lawyer and they have a cluieless suffolk jury, i can’t see anyone but a self-loathing ambulance chaser filing that claim.

  17. neil

    After reading Vennochi’s article (Dan the link to her article in your blog is broken), I checked the Globe Ombudsman’s blog to see what additional insights he could provide.Hm–the last thing he wrote about was the elimination of the Confidenctial Chat, on Dec 30. Helluva blog, Chacky, helluva blog!

  18. Anonymous

    Yeah, Chacon really rocks the boat over there.

  19. mike_b1

    Chacon’s diary is more log than blog. All the hype has thus far shown to be so much lip service. Of course, the Globe doesn’t take that position seriously, so why should he?

  20. Steve

    Here’s a sad case of some of the print media’s predicament. I got my weekly copy of The Jewish Advocate today. Half the front page is taken up by a picture of Ariel Sharon checking himself into the hospital last Thursday for his heart repair operation. The editorial is devoted to “PM Sharon’s Next Move”. The editorial cartoon has Sharon joking with his heart surgeon.Events of the last couple of days hit at the worst time in the Advocate’s weekly news cycle – too late to even redo these elements of the weekly. The result is heartbreaking.

  21. Chalicechick

    Did the media actually report the Mao story all that much? I only saw it on blogs.I have to say that the only story I ever saw that said they were alive was very clear to say that the FAMILIES were saying that the 12 were alive. I assume this was before the governor started saying the 12 were alive, which the papers, pretty reasonably I think, took that as official confirmation. CC

  22. Anonymous

    The media is very much to blame. They lie in wait looking to scoop the story. Whenever they are wrong, they don’t care because they’re not affected.If you want further evidence of a lousy media, take this into account.You can read a story about the same thing in most papers and get a different slant on it. Sometimes it’s damn crooked. The press have become pretty unfeeling.Go out and rent the movie “Ace in the Hole” (sometimes called the Big Carnival) by Billy Wilder. He was eviscerated for his tale of a opportunistic reporter but it’s about as real as it gets today.

  23. Chalicechick

    “You can read a story about the same thing in most papers and get a different slant on it. Sometimes it’s damn crooked. The press have become pretty unfeeling.”And if you got to two psychologists, you’ll get two different interpretations of your problems. And two tax accountants will likely come out with two different ideas of exactly how much you owe. Sometimes people are crooked, sometimes they just have different “slants.” I don’t know why the families would sue the media. The families are the ones who told the media the miners were alive. If you were watching CNN, a guy ran past Anderson Cooper on live TV and told him that 12 were alive. Cooper didn’t actually say it was confirmed until the governor started talking about it. It fascinates me how politicians aren’t expected to know what they are talking about. From yellowcake uranium to this, they get a complete pass, but when people percieve that the media has screwed up, the claws some out in such a huge and serious way.I’m sorry, but I’ve been a reporter and a source calling you up and saying “Uh.. that thing I told you? People are mad at me for telling you, so I’m going to say it’s not true from now on,” or “I’m not sure it happened the way I told you it did, yeah, I know I said I was positive at the time…” happens. And sometimes it happens on stories where the now obviously flaky source was the only witness to something and independent confirmation of what they said is just not available. (e.g. In this case, people in the communications booth at the mining company thought they were alive. There was nobody else down there other than the mining company. I guess all the really self righteous folks here would have dug down themselves, but you’ll pardon me if I forgive the reporters for taking the mining folks at their word. True, they listened to what the regular joes had said rather than waiting for the official PR statement, but usually it is the regular guys who know what they are talking about and the PR guys who get things wrong.) I promise you that when you find out a source has changed their story, your editor hates you and you hate yourself. But it has nothing to do with malice on your part and I can’t imagine why people think it would. Maybe they all have jobs where they’ve never made a mistake and nobody has ever screwed them over. CC

  24. Wes

    Well, one must admit that this story raised the hackles of the oft lethargic, or mostly mute. Wish that the very fact that not one American soldier has died, or been maimed, or suffered terrible destruction at home to family due to being summoned to Iraq while not defending the United States, would stir emotions.

  25. Bill Baar

    Chalice Chick,the Mao story would have been a lot smaller if Kennedy hadn’t used it in an editorial.The story on Narnia walking out of the WTO was picked up by Forbes for a few hours… it’s really a fun hoax.The New Orleans coverage was really bad. None of these things alone would count for much but as a whole it raises some big questions about what’s going on with MSM.It used to be I could not start my day without reading the NYT but that’s long gone… or watching CBS in the evening… for many reasons, I no longer trust them.

  26. Chalicechick

    I’ll have to look up the Narnia thing, I never heard about it. Coverage of any area into which the media is not allowed will always suck. As for the Mao story, I raise again the point that the media, not politicians, get guff for being wrong. Were Kennedy a reporter, you would expect him to fact check his own stuff. Since he’s a polician, he’s fact errors are the media’s…CC

  27. neil

    “MSM” is a meaningless, lazy term. As opposed to what? Is some non-mainstream alternative more reliable? Amazing–doesn’t fall for hoaxes, never fouls up due to deadline pressure, is immune to commercial interests, has no political agenda–how does NMSM do it! They have so much to teach us!I think more depressing than the announcement screwup, which after all was corrected quickly, was the loathesomeness of the jackals with cameras descending on the townsfolk. Seeking out and feeding on their suffering. How did you feel, ma’am, when you learned that your husband was saved, then learned instead that he was crushed to death? How did you feel at the exact moment–huh? Huh? Can you share your horrific grief with us, for the sake of my ratings? Face the camera please. Can we get a closeup?The exploitation of grief for ratings is so commonplace now that it is apparently hardly noticed anymore. But it is the more disturbing aspect of this sorrowful story, don’t you think? The shamelessness is sickening.Out, damn Geraldo and his ghoulish ilk!

  28. Friend of Medico

    OHMYGOD. No more Confidential Chat? How did I miss this. It was the grandmother, nay, Great-Grandmother, to every chat board or blog that bet nobody understands the SN

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