Part 4—At CNN, balconies fail: According to a famous Hollywood script, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
According to our frustrated analysts, “Whenever you read the New York Times, you hear a balcony fail.”
Balcony failure is rare in this country, presumably due to the basic competence of those in the building trades.
But where was the New York Times’ basic competence when the great newspaper first tried to describe the death of Trayvon Martin?
This particular case of balcony failure occurred on Tuesday, March 27. The story of Martin’s killing had gone viral on cable eight days before. Now, the Times was lumbering into action, trying to summarize the basic events of this case for its readers.
One day before, the Orlando Sentinel had posted a detailed report, describing George Zimmerman’s account of what happened that night. Now, the New York Times tried to summarize that report.
With remarkable speed, the New York Times failed. These are paragraphs 3 and 4 of its bungled report, the featured report on the first page of the paper’s National section:
ROBERTSON AND ALVAREZ (3/27/12): In Mr. Zimmerman's account to the police, he returned to his S.U.V. after he was unable to find him. Trayvon then approached Mr. Zimmerman from behind and they exchanged words. Then, Mr. Zimmerman said, Trayvon hit him hard enough that he fell to the ground—which would explain what Mr. Zimmerman's lawyer, Craig Sonner, has said was a broken nose—and began slamming his head into the sidewalk.No bells rang as we read those grafs—though we did hear a balcony fail.
The account first appeared in The Orlando Sentinel on Monday and was later confirmed by the Sanford police as ''consistent with the information provided to the state attorney's office by the Police Department.''
Sorry, but no—the Orlando Sentinel didn’t report that Zimmerman said he “returned to his S.U.V. after he was unable to find” Martin. According to the Sentinel, Zimmerman told police that he “had turned around and was walking back to his SUV when Trayvon approached him from behind.”
And yes, there is a difference.
The Times tried to paraphrase what the Sentinel wrote—the newspaper tried and it failed. Result? On MSNBC, propagandists used this bungled account to claim that Zimmerman was a liar. Plainly, the fatal encounter between Zimmerman and Martin didn't occur at Zimmerman’s truck. On the One True Corporate Liberal Channel, this meant that Zimmerman had lied to police about that evening’s events!
In paragraph 3, a balcony failed. And uh-oh! As the Times scribes continued to type, a second balcony crashed to the earth:
ROBERTSON AND ALVAREZ (continuing directly): At a news conference on Monday, the Martin family, their lawyer and supporters said the police were attempting to demonize Trayvon by leaking Mr. Zimmerman's account to the media.The highlighted passage makes it sound like Zimmerman was told to stay in his car, then got out and started pursuing Martin. Plainly, that account is inaccurate.
The most relevant fact in Trayvon's death, they said, is that Mr. Zimmerman chose to pursue Trayvon, who was unarmed and walking home, despite a police dispatcher's advice to stay in his car.
''They have killed my son,'' Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mother, said tearfully at the news conference. ''And now they are trying to kill his reputation.''
But so what? Correctly or otherwise, the Times attributed that account of Zimmerman’s actions to the Martin family—then made no attempt to clarify the actual facts as they emerge from the audiotape in which Zimmerman speaks to the dispatcher.
To this day, it's still unclear what Zimmerman did after that exchangewith the dispatcher. But here's an obvious guess: As Times readers scanned this report, many drew a false impression about what occurred.
If contractors conducted their duties this way, every bridge in the country would collapse; every balcony would fail. By paragraph 6 of this major report, the New York Times had failed in its attempt to paraphrase a simple report. It then had failed to challenge or clarify a plainly inaccurate statement. And sure enough:
As the corporate renegades pushed their narratives on The One True Corporate Liberal Channel, these bungles provided more grist for the mill.
At the New York Times, balconies had failed.
If contractors were this incompetent, every edifice in the country would fail. But over at least the past twenty years, the work of the American press corps has virtually been defined by this degree of basic incompetence.
Very few liberals are willing to say so. Frankly, we liberals aren’t very smart—and our career “intellectual leaders” just aren’t very honest.
In part due to the silence from our camp, the American “press corps” has been tragicomically incompetent for a good many years. Routinely, major players show a remarkable lack of basic journalistic chops.
So it was when Soledad O’Brien attempted to discuss Martin’s killing on CNN last Friday night.
O’Brien is everything you want in a TV “journalist”—she’s telegenic and likeable. But good God! Does she have a journalistic lick in her whole repertoire? Last Friday night, her hour-long CNN “Live Event Special” carried this headline: “Beyond Trayvon: Race and Justice in America.”
Balconies came crashing to earth all through this revealing program. To read the full transcript, click here.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the various points where O’Brien failed to behave like a journalist—where she failed to provide the journalistic services a modern society needs. For today, let’s list a few expectations one might bring to the host of a program like this.
For starters, let’s think about three easy pieces:
The broadcaster shouldn’t make factual claims which are untrue. She shouldn’t make factual claims which remain unproven. And here's a third expectation:
She ought to correct or challenge her guests if they make factual claims which are false or unproven.
Those duties are amazingly basic. For our money, we’d like to see broadcasters perform a fourth function in cases where a great deal of misinformation has been spewed across the land:
We’d like to see broadcasters inform their viewers of that key fact—tell viewers that they have heard many claims which are untrue or unproven. And how about a fifth expectation?
The broadcaster ought to challenge her guests in basic ways if they make highly emotional, sweeping indictments. Who exactly are they accusing? On what basis do they make their indictment? In a highly emotional matter like the killing of Martin, this is a very important service.
It’s a basic journalistic service, the type a large modern nation needs.
In emotional matters like the killing of Martin, a nation needs the basic services of traditional journalists. We need to separate facts from mere claims. We need to know when claims are untrue.
We need to be told how much we don’t know. We need competent journalists to “separate the facts from the hype,” the basic service O’Brien promised as her hour-long program started.
At CNN, quite a few balconies failed this night. But then, what else is new?
Tomorrow: Disaster movie