Accuracy in Media

It was rich irony indeed. The day after NBC News led its evening newscast with a report that the White House had staged an event with our soldiers in Iraq, NBC News was caught staging one. And by any objective measure, the NBC News case was far more newsworthy and objectionable. After all, this was done by a “professional” news organization that is supposed to know better.

What is a “staged” news event? They happen all the time. News conferences, for example, are staged events. In this case, President Bush was asking questions and talking to a group of soldiers in Iraq. The White House said it would be spontaneous, suggesting that it wouldn’t be rehearsed. But clearly it was, and someone had the cameras running and the rehearsal was being fed live back to all of the networks.

This is how Carl Cameron of Fox News reported it on Brit Hume’s Special Report: “Ten handpicked American troops and one Iraqi soldier took part in today’s event. In response to the President’s questions, they repeatedly praised the readiness of Iraqi security forces and said voter registration is up significantly.” And, added Cameron, “The White House and the Pentagon insisted the event was neither scripted nor rehearsed, but for 45 minutes prior to the President’s involvement, the soldiers practiced their answers repeatedly with a Pentagon official who stood where the President would later address the troops and, in her own words, quote, ‘drilled them on questions he was likely to ask,’ along with what she called their own, quote, ‘scripted responses.'”

It became a big story on the news that day. National Public Radio made a big deal out of it. NBC led the news with the story. And the White House was scrambling to explain how this wasn’t really staging an event, but rather just preparing for it.

The media saw this as a grave matter, that it somehow suggested that the entire Iraq policy was a lie, and that the American people were being duped by the White House. Once again, the media took a minor incident and tried to make a scandal out of it. The media slogan seems to be: Anything to make the Bush Administration look bad.

But one of the soldiers involved set the record straight. Sergeant Ron Long, an Army combat medic, has been writing a blog since last April. Here is how he described what happened: “?we were told that we would be speaking with the President of the United States, our Commander-in-Chief, President Bush, so I believe that it would have been totally irresponsible for us NOT to prepare some ideas, facts or comments that we wanted to share with the President. We were given an idea as to what topics he may discuss with us, but it’s the President of the United States; he will choose which way his conversation with us may go. We practiced passing the microphone around to one another, so we wouldn’t choke someone on live TV. We had an idea as to who we thought should answer what types of questions, unless President Bush called on one of us specifically.”

Long is not too happy with the media in general. “Who has confidence in the media to tell the whole story?,” said Long. “It’s like they WANT this to turn into another Vietnam. I hate to break it to them, but it’s not.”

We expect that politicians stage events. But what we don’t expect, and what is a real violation of ethics, is when news organizations stage events or stories. The one NBC got caught staging the next morning was a laugher. They had their attractive new correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, paddling a canoe in what appeared to be flooded streets in New Jersey after days of rain. This was live on the Today show. And as she’s sitting there paddling away, two people walk into the picture, and it becomes apparent that the water is only ankle deep. Even Today Show co-hosts Matt Lauer and Katie Couric got a howl out of that one.

Michelle Malkin wrote a column about this detailing other much more serious examples of the networks and various reporters staging the news, or just making it up.

She cites the GM pick-up truck controversy, in which NBC had shown pick-up trucks with exploding fuel-tanks, but in fact had rigged them to explode. CNN and Time magazine rigged a whole story, called Operation Tailwind, about the U.S. military using poison gas during the Vietnam War to go after deserters who had gone to Laos. They later fired the two top producers on the story and heads rolled once the truth came out.

The truth is that staging the news is commonplace. We are often called to be guests on TV or radio shows, and during the pre-show interviews, or screening process, they will ask a question again and again. This is a form of staging the news. The media are looking for a certain answer that can be aired in a quick sound bite. There is nothing objectionable about this if the correspondents are not putting words in your mouth or telling you what to say. They are looking for something that is snappy on the air, makes a point, and which doesn’t waste time.

The Kosinski “flooding” incident goes way beyond this. It tried to create the impression of serious flooding when the water was only up to a person’s ankles. It’s easy to laugh about it. But when a major news operation will resort to staging the news about a flood, one has to ask how many more serious examples of news management have taken place before our eyes without the American people knowing about it?

The media should quit pointing fingers at the Pentagon and air their own dirty laundry.

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