Accuracy in Media

Can media consumers believe anything that is presented to them? From Oprah Winfrey promoting a book fraud to false stories about survivors in the mining disaster, the public should learn a hard lesson-be skeptical of what you see, read, or hear. 

Sensing that Oprah Winfrey has been victimized by a con artist, our media ran many stories questioning the James Frey book, A Million Little Pieces, about his life as a drug addict. The website and its editor, William Bastone, have done a tremendous public service by exposing the book’s fabrications.

Frey, during an appearance on the NBC Today Show, had claimed that the book was true and that he didn’t invent anything in it. But on Larry King Live, after the controversy emerged, he admitted that he had tried to get the book published as a novel and that it contained embellishments.

This was an opportunity for Oprah to disavow the book and admit she had been conned into promoting it as an authentic memoir. Oprah had had Frey on her show and helped him become rich by selling millions of copies of the book. But she told Larry King that the controversy was much ado about nothing and that it was sufficient that the book had helped people with drug or alcohol problems.

Her response seemed to be that the story was “Fake but good.” That was on the same level as the CBS “Fake but accurate” defense in the Memogate scandal involving the use of forged documents.

She was never regarded as a journalist, but her disdain for the truth —  as exhibited in that call to Larry King ? took a toll on her credibility with viewers.  Oprah had been considered one of the most admired women in the world. She later reversed course, telling Frey in a follow-up appearance that it was “difficult for me to talk to you because I really feel duped … but more importantly I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” She said she regretted making that call to Larry King.

Is what Oprah did in promoting that fake “memoir” that significantly different than what passes for objective reporting from the mainstream media?

Consider USA Today’s headline on January 5: “Media misstep splashed across many front pages.” It was a reference, of course, to the mining disaster coverage.

USA Today was itself at fault. Its headline read, “‘Alive!’ Miners Beat the Odds,” over a photo of two smiling women, relatives of miners they believed had been found alive. Instead, it now serves as stark evidence of a rush to get a story without verifying the most important aspect of the story, and with tragic and heart-wrenching results. Yes, USA Today was up against a deadline, but it was still an inexcusable error.

It harkens to mind a story with little comparative relevance in terms of substance, but in terms of journalistic standards, it is very relevant. Mitch Albom, the popular sportswriter and author of Tuesdays with Morrie, got spanked by many of the media watchdogs for writing about a couple of players who had told Albom that they were planning to attend the NCAA Final Four semifinal game last April, wearing their Michigan State green colors. Albom submitted the story on Friday, writing as if the game on Saturday had already occurred. In the meantime, however, the two players changed their plans and didn’t attend the game, thus exposing Albom’s story and a dirty little secret of journalism.

As USA Today’s Peter Johnson put it at the time: “Researching and putting together stories before an event takes place is not unusual in daily journalism. Predicting what’s going to happen saves time on deadline, although editors and reporters are expected to confirm the facts.”

Now USA Today is caught in the felonious equivalent of Albom’s journalistic misdemeanor. It is understandable how the story of the miners being alive had traction, though it is hardly excusable. Many newspapers were stuck with headlines the next day announcing that 12 miners had been found alive. They included the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Post, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune.

After word mistakenly leaked out from the rescue command center that 12 of the trapped miners were found alive, it quickly spread to the waiting families and press. It was something everyone wanted to believe. There were some reporters asking the right questions, including Nightline’s Martin Basher, who asked a reporter if he had seen an ambulance come out from the area of the mines. But the newspapers had to make some quick decisions. They were writing tomorrow’s headlines, while the TV anchors were conveying the mood and belief of the moment.

USA Today crossed a line in writing that “The men were taken by ambulances to a nearby hospital for examination. There was no word on the miners’ condition.” The writer of that story, Tom Vanden Brook, also had a feature story on page three, which said, “The survivors were taken by ambulance to a local hospital for examination.” None of this ever happened, of course. Perhaps Vanden Brook anticipated that it would have happened by the time anyone read it. Or perhaps it was the work of his editor.

In fairness, USA Today did reflect upon its misreporting the following day, and noted the error about the ambulances, but offered no explanation for it. It did offer a detailed explanation, however, about how the media got the “miners alive” part of the story wrong. It blamed an Associated Press story citing an interview with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who had also heard the “news” that the miners were alive.

Blaming someone else for your own mistakes is human nature. Like Oprah’s response to being conned by James Frey, people in the media don’t like to accept responsibility for their own misbehavior.

It’s time for all of them to be held accountable.

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