Accuracy in Media

Richard Harwood, a retired Washington Post editor, recently explained the rash of journalistic scandals this way, “We didn’t want to believe that news organizations, like other institutions, had their share of liars, plagiarists, thieves and incompetents. They may be harder to unmask in journalism than in other occupations…. Journalism also has attracted its share of zealots who set out to prove a thesis regardless of the evidence.”

He cited three examples of this zealotry: (1) The recent CNN/Time story charging that the U.S. military used lethal nerve gas in Laos in 1970; (2) The San Jose Mercury-News series two years ago charging that the CIA helped introduce crack cocaine into the Los Angeles inner city; and (3) NBC’s use of film footage to prove that “General Motors made trucks with unsafe gasoline tanks.”

Ironically, in describing this last example of media fraud, Harwood himself made a mistake. He relied on his memory instead of checking the facts for accuracy. He said one of the trucks in the NBC crash test “exploded on camera” because “it had been rigged to blow up by technicians hired by NBC.” That makes it sound as though NBC had planted an explosive device in the truck.

What NBC did was bad, but it wasn’t that bad. They rigged two trucks with remote controlled igniters that started a modest fire when gasoline from the over-filled and loosely capped gas tank spilled out when a car smashed into it. In the first crash, the fire was so small that the footage was almost unusable to make the point they wanted to make-that GM pickup trucks with gas tanks on the side would go up in flames in side collisions.

Having failed to get a big dramatic fire in the first crash, they tried again, crashing another car into a another truck at a higher rate of speed. To their great disappointment, the second crash produced no fire at all. The honest thing for them to do would have been to report that their tests showed that the GM trucks were not prone to burst into flames in side impact crashes. That would have required more integrity than the producers at Dateline NBC possessed. Instead, they decided to make do with footage of the first crash by using a tight shot to give the impression that the truck was engulfed in flames.

Many a mistake is made by journalists who rely on their memory instead of checking to make sure the facts are accurate. I made just such a mistake in writing one of these commentaries a few weeks ago. I wrote that Michael Gartner, the president of NBC News, had been fired because of the GM pickup truck story. That was wrong. When I called Gartner to ask how he felt about the way CNN was handling its scandal, he told me he had resigned voluntarily. He said he knew nothing about the rigged crash tests, but they happened on his watch, and he felt he should assume the responsibility. I apologize for not having given him the credit he richly deserves for integrity.

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