Ed Driscoll

Failing Upward: The Narrative and the Journalists Who Advance It

Last night, Glenn Reynolds featured the “Blog Comment of the Day,” which could be found at William A. Jacobson’s Legal Insurrection site:

“Fascinating that a man shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ as he mows down 35 people on an army base isn’t motivated by Islam… but a guy who has the same name as hundreds of others—and says nothing as he fires—is obviously a Tea Party zealot.”

As Glenn replied, “It’s all about the narrative.”

W. Joseph Campbell, the veteran journalist and author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, who blogs at his Media Myth Alert Website writes that the MSM is “Slow to learn: Lesson for journos in Brian Ross’ egregious error on ABC.” But they’re only lessons to be learned if the MSM considers itself to be in the reporting business. They do not — they’re in the business of advancing narratives which help advance the right (read: left) politics:

How did Ross — a veteran television reporter whose ABC biography unabashedly declares him “one of the most honored and respected journalists in the country” — come to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted”?

ABC’s apology didn’t say.

It may have been that Ross was excessively eager to be first in reporting a linkage to a conservative political movement. He may have been unable to restrain his ideological inclinations. He may have been misled by a producer.

Whatever the reason, his error on a television program that attracts 4.5 million viewers was inexcusable — and eminently preventable.

In the swirling uncertainty that invariably marks the hours after a disaster, journalists are well-served to show deliberation and restraint, to be mindful that error and distortion often blight the first reports of dramatic events.

I discuss this phenomenon in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting that “it is a near-certainty that erroneous reports will circulate in a disaster’s immediate aftermath.”

I also point out in Getting It Wrong:

“By recognizing that implausible rumors and exaggerated casualty tolls almost always are among the first effects of major disasters, journalists may spare themselves considerable embarrassment and their audiences great confusion.”

Getting It Wrong revisits the badly flawed news reporting of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans in 2005 — which offers enduring if unlearned lessons for journalists about the near-certainty of error in disaster coverage.

The reporting about Katrina’s destructive assault, I write, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

The MSM’s response to all of that would be a loud, “So what?” As always, the narrative trumps all. From their point of view, Katrina wasn’t botched; as the New York Times said the previous year when it dismissed Dan Rather’s RatherGate debacle, it was merely “fake but accurate.” The media’s truthiness in Katrina ultimately served a higher purpose, which could be seen in the election results the following year and in 2008.

And so what if Brian Ross is fired from ABC? Vivian Schiller of NPR can fire Juan Williams for a thoughtcrime that he expressly stated he didn’t act upon, recommend Soviet-style psychiatry for him, and bounce back on her feet (or “fail upward,” as Stacy McCain recently put it) as “Chief Digital Officer” at NBC News’ Internet division. If you thought NBC was rather biased now…

And speaking of Rather-biased, Dan Rather is still working on TV, albeit he’s now found in the bowels of your DirecTV guide instead of at the top of it; and to bring a decade worth of disastrous network news “reporting” full circle, recently wrote — or at least put his name atop — a new article at CNN.

Ross will do fine, whether at ABC or some other bastion of old media “journalism.” From the point of view of either his current or future employers, his was a job well done yesterday.

Related: From Joel Gehrke at the Washington Examiner, “A Short, Incomplete History of Media Trying To Tie The Tea Party To Tragedies.”

Update: Yesterday, Jim Treacher wrote:

This goes beyond speculating about a murderer’s motives. This is slandering an individual who had nothing to do with a terrible crime, while the families of the victims are still reeling, just because of his political beliefs. You’d think liberals and the media (pardon the redundancy) would’ve learned something after Gabby Giffords and all those other people got shot, and somehow it became Sarah Palin’s fault. But again, learning from their mistakes: What’s in it for them?

Check back in November for the answer to that. Or ask Jay Carney.

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