March 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 31, 2014 – 12:02 am

Last summer, media critic Jay Rosen announced he would no longer criticize CNN. “As of today, I have retired from criticism of CNN for falling short of some sort of journalistic standard that news providers should maintain. That activity no longer makes sense.”

Rosen argued that since CNN no longer holds itself to news standards, it would be pointless to do so himself.

I agreed with much of his premise at the time, but wasn’t ready to give up on my former employer quite yet (I worked at CNN from 1999-2001). I cherish the role that CNN should be playing—a straight-up-the-middle news outlet—and wanted to believe that the network would eventually wander back to its roots.

Instead, with its saturation coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, CNN has taken a giant step backward in its evolution from well-respected news outlet to The Jerry Springer Show.

Don Lemon Black Hole

The coverage reached its nadir during Don Lemon’s newscasts. First, Mr. Lemon speculated that the supernatural could be responsible for the plane’s disappearance:

“Especially today, on a day when we deal with the supernatural, we go to church, the supernatural power of God. You deal with all of that. People are saying to me, why aren’t you talking about the possibility—and I’m just putting it out there—that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?”

Next, he wondered whether a black hole could have somehow sucked the plane out of the universe, a suggestion his guest batted down immediately.

Not to be outdone, CNN’s sister network, CNN Headline News, hosted a psychic who said she doesn’t like to rely on facts (the passengers are alive, she claimed).

CNN Headline News Psychics

Psychics. Black holes. Supernatural forces. Baseless speculation. This is CNN.

As atrocious as CNN’s coverage has been, the network’s ratings are up. That prompted Piers Morgan’s executive producer to tweet this:

Jonathan Wald Tweet

Wald appears to be conflating popularity with quality. That’s like saying McDonald’s sells the best burgers since it sells the most hamburgers. No, quality and popularity aren’t inextricably linked. Wald’s suggestion otherwise offers a discouraging view into the network’s ends-justify-the-means approach to news.

Yes, CNN still has some quality journalists working for the network, some of whom are friends and former colleagues. But that misses the point. The network is only as good as its least responsible programming, of which there’s an intolerable amount.

Like Jay Rosen before me, I’m tired of expecting more from the network. I’m choosing to click away and find my news in places that exercise more journalistic restraint. I’m just sad that the once-respected 24-hour news network has become little more than a 24-hour network.

Jon Stewart’s takedown of the shameful cable news coverage of Malaysia Air 370 is worth watching.

What are your thoughts about CNN’s programming? Please leave your views in the comments section below.


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20 Years Ago: The Al Gore / Ross Perot NAFTA Debate

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 8, 2013 – 12:02 am

Twenty years ago tomorrow—on November 9, 1993—Vice President Al Gore and billionaire businessman Ross Perot appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live to debate the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). More than 16 million people tuned in to the high-profile debate.

NAFTA was a controversial piece of legislation that created a trade bloc among three nations—the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It narrowly passed the U.S. House one week after this debate and went into force less than two months later.

Whatever your views on NAFTA, one thing is clear: Al Gore crushed Ross Perot in the debate.

If you remember this debate at all, it’s probably for Mr. Perot’s demeanor. Time Magazine described the difference between the two men thusly: “A calm, suave Gore literally towered over a snide and snarling Perot.” The Independent declared that “by any objective yardstick, a cool, slightly condescending Mr Gore won out over a petulant Mr Perot, by a mile.”

To get a sense of Perot’s temperament, watch about a minute of this clip, beginning at the 2:25 mark. Keep in mind that he was speaking to a sitting U.S. vice president at the time.

Mr. Gore won this debate for one reason: He found his opponent’s Achilles’ heel—Perot’s temper—and exploited it at every opportunity. Perot, unaccustomed to being interrupted and hectored, predictably bristled, snapping at Gore to “give me your whole mind” and asking him “Are you going to listen? Work on it.”

According to journalist James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic:

“There was genius, or at least cunning, in the decision to prepare Gore to push Perot’s flaw to the breaking point — to stake the debate on Gore’s ability to make Perot lose his temper. ‘If you’re dealing with a hothead, you make him mad,’ Greg Simon, a longtime Gore aide who was then Gore’s domestic-policy adviser and part of the team that prepared him for the debate, told me. ‘You’ve got a crazy man, you make him show it.’”

“Their starting point was that Perot was like an overbearing grandfather. ‘He’ll be fine as long as everybody sits there and listens to him,’ Simon said. ‘But if you start interrupting him, he’ll lose it.’ Perot, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was extremely proud of his image as a self-sacrificing patriot. Several aides reasoned that if Gore could find a way to gibe at or raise doubts about that reputation, Perot would be unable to contain himself. Perot had virtually no experience with being treated disrespectfully.”

How ineffective was Perot’s peevishness? Before the debate, only 34 percent of Americans supported NAFTA. Immediately following the debate, support surged to 57 percent.

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Are Journalists Rebelling Against Going Off-The-Record?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on May 30, 2013 – 1:54 pm

Attorney General Eric Holder is meeting with bureau chiefs from major news outlets this week for off-the-record sessions. They’re discussing the recent revelations that the Department of Justice seized phone records from Associated Press reporters and investigated Fox News reporter James Rosen for his reporting of sensitive leaked government information.

Not everybody is playing ball – as of this writing, The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Huffington Post, CNN and McClatchy will not attend as long as the session remains off the record.

This isn’t the first time the Obama Administration has been in the news for its controlling policies when it comes to dealing with the media. Just last summer, The New York Times reported on the practice of political press officers having final approval on quotes used in stories in exchange for access to top campaign officials. Of course, trying to control the media by restricting access is not exclusive to the Obama administration — but each successive recent Administration seems to be moving toward increasingly stricter controls.

As a former journalist, I find that these off-the-record meetings continue a dangerous trend regarding the media’s dealings with this Administration. This Department of Justice issue affects the news media itself and, as the point of a free press is to shine a light on government and its actions, should be discussed openly. Furthermore, from a communications standpoint, I’m not sure this serves to reassure the public that the Obama administration is committed to press freedoms.

MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosted a great debate on the topic this morning featuring top journalists and former politicians. The clip is a bit long at 22 minutes, but I suggest you take the time to watch it anyway. In it, Ron Fournier, the Editorial Director of the National Journal and former Washington Bureau Chief for the Associated Press voiced his concerns about the meeting, saying:

“Off the record in Washington means it’s a secret. It means even if… If you show me pictures of a senator with sheep, I can’t do anything with it… I’m not a priest. My job is to report what is happening. So why would I want to be a part of…meeting with a bunch of other journalists on a topic this important that is a secret. And the high irony here is that the Attorney General who’s been snooping on our news organizations wanted us to keep his secret.”

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Outlets participating in the meeting cited the common practice of off-the-record conversations between journalists and sources. Politico’s Editor in Chief John Harris said in an email:

“As editor in chief, I routinely have off-the-record conversations with people who have questions or grievances about our coverage or our newsgathering practices. I feel anyone–whether an official or ordinary reader–should be able to have an unguarded conversation with someone in a position of accountability for a news organization when there is good reason.”

What lessons can communications professionals take from this?

1. Be wary of off-the-record agreements. Even if the agreement is honored, it may be reported that your organization insisted on an off-the-record situation, making it look like you have something to hide.

2. Off-the-record may affect your relationship with reporters. Many reporters resent this culture of off the record in straightforward situations. This agreement should be used sparingly.

3. Just because the Obama administration gets away with off-the-record demands to some degree doesn’t mean you will. Access to the President and top administration officials is necessary for political journalists to do their job. Access to your organization probably doesn’t rate with journalists quite as high.

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“Reliable Sources” Host Discuses His Unreliable Work

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 6, 2013 – 10:42 am

Disclaimer: From 1999-2001, I served as one of three full-time producers for CNN’s Reliable Sources. I worked with host Howard Kurtz for two years. I left the show on good terms, but have spoken to Howie only once since leaving. During our time on the show together (and when producing a few of his pieces for Inside Politics), he always treated me respectfully. I enjoyed working with him.

When NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay in Sports Illustrated last week, Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, accused him of not being forthright about having been engaged to a woman. Worse, he mocked the player for “playing both sides of the court.”

In fact, Collins had explicitly disclosed his relationship with the woman in the article. When confronted with his error, Kurtz chose to modify the article only slightly. Only after continued criticism did the website The Daily Beast, the site on which his erroneous article appeared, retract the story. (Kurtz left The Daily Beast last week. He says it was amicable; other sources describe it as a “firing.”)

On Sunday, CNN invited two other media reporters to interview Kurtz about this mistake—and others—on his own show. From a crisis communications perspective, how did he do?

Generally speaking, Kurtz did a good job with his on-air mea culpa. He appeared humbled, chastened, and even shaken. He didn’t mince words about his errors, saying:

“The mistake I made was sloppy and inexcusable. I’m not going to offer any extenuating circumstances. I screwed up.”

“I deserve the criticism. I accept it. And I’m determined to learn from this episode.”

But there are at least two things I wish he had done differently.

First, he would have been much better served by acknowledging his original error immediately. As a result of delaying his apology, his eventual mea culpa may be perceived as a reactive necessity rather than a proactive choice.

Second, he didn’t fully answer multiple questions about his workload. During the time I worked with Howie, I wondered whether he was overburdened. At the time we worked together, he was not only writing a weekly column (and other regular articles) for The Washington Post and hosting Reliable Sources, but he was also writing a book called The Fortune Tellers. His workload has only seemingly increased in the digital age, with more columns, tweets, and online videos.

Howard Kurtz by David Shankbone

When asked whether he would decrease his workload, he said:

“I’m going to try to be careful not to take on too much.”

“I’ll leave it to others to judge whether I have taken on too much…my kids tell me I work too hard.”

“There are some people who say, ‘Well, maybe you had a little too much on your plate.’ I’ll leave that to others to judge….I’ll be careful from this point on not to take on too much.”

That strikes me as a rather tepid pledge, and Kurtz should have been more specific on this point. If his workload is going to be the exact same, how can he slow down and fact-check more carefully? If he’s going to take on less, what, specifically, does he intend to give up? An unspecific pledge that fails to enumerate specific action steps falls short of an ideal crisis communications approach.

For now, Kurtz is fighting to continue his role on Reliable Sources. As the pointed questions asked of him in the video above show, it won’t be easy.

Photo credit: David Shankbone

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April 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 3, 2013 – 6:02 am

If you follow my Twitter feed (I’m at @MrMediaTraining), you know that I often have critical words to say about CNN. Based on my tweets alone, you might reasonably conclude that I hate the network.

The truth is I don’t. I’m just bitterly disappointed in what the network has become. CNN’s decline has occurred at the exact moment that a solid news—not opinion—network is needed most.

There’s a critical need for a cable news channel that aims down the middle and gets it right. CNN should be the network that meets that need. Instead, it’s too often filled with silly and completely unnecessary graphics of holograms (really), silly and completely unnecessary over-coverage of “breaking” stories (such as the hours-long broadcast following the arrival of the Carnival Triumph cruise ship), and, worst of all, incorrect reporting.

John King Bad Report

CNN has had its credibility shattered in recent years. Its reputation took a bad hit in 1998, when the network claimed that U.S. troops committed war crimes during Operation Tailwind, a covert incursion that occurred during the Vietnam War. The network retracted the report.

In 2000, the network suffered another black eye by calling the presidential race incorrectly. More recently, CNN said that Gabrielle Giffords had died (she didn’t), that the Supreme Court overturned ObamaCare (it didn’t), and that Ryan Lanza was the Newtown shooter (he wasn’t – it was his brother, Adam).

But CNN’s misreporting this month about the Boston Marathon bombings may have been its lowest moment, compounding the network’s growing reputation for blowing the big story.

At the time of this report, no arrest had been made—Correspondent John King made these comments before the manhunt in Watertown, Massachusetts that led to the death of one suspect and the capture of the other.

King didn’t stop there. He also described the suspect as a “dark-skinned male,” which turned out to a questionable description—and was probably too vague to warrant mention at all.

John King later acknowledged his mistake and described his agony over getting it wrong. But CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker seemed not to care. He sent his staff a tone-deaf and congratulatory statement on their wonderful coverage of the bombing:

“For journalists like each of us, these are the times that define what we do and why we do it. All of you, across every division of CNN Worldwide, have done exceptional work. And when we made a mistake, we moved quickly to acknowledge it and correct it.”

Zucker is right that these are the times that define what they do. It’s just that his rose-colored definition is wrong. Despite the fact that many of CNN’s reporters and correspondents reported parts of the story well, their successes were rightfully drowned out by their mistakes.

It’s true that other news organizations got this story (and some of the others I mentioned in this piece) wrong. But I don’t expect more from many of those outlets. I do expect more from CNN. And for that reason, I’m naming CNN’s misreporting the worst video media disaster of the month.

What do you think? Was I too hard on CNN, or do they deserve being named the worst disaster of the month? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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A Brief And Incomplete History of Media Mistakes

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 17, 2013 – 4:17 pm

CNN is yet again being criticized for misreporting a major news story.

This time, the network claimed that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing. After the FBI issued a stern rebuke, the occasional news network backed away from the story. (Others got the story wrong as well, but CNN’s mistakes were made with particular panache.)

BuzzFeed did a wonderful job of capturing CNN’s awful hour of reporting here.

Below are a few other high-profile examples of mainstream media outlets getting a major story wrong. 

In December 2012, after the horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, many news outlets wrongly identified the shooter as Adam Lanza’s brother, Ryan. Lanza’s mother was also widely reported to have been a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School; she wasn’t. Many news outlets also misreported the type of gun used in the attack.

 

In June 2012, both CNN and the Fox News Channel misreported the Supreme Court’s decision regarding President Obama’s health care law, as the screenshots below show.

 

 

In 2011, many news organizations misreported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died. According to Poynter.org:

“Organizations such as NPR, Reuters, Fox News, CBS, CNN and the Huffington Post sent out tweets or distributed other reports declaring Giffords dead. The New York Times’ website briefly reported her dead as well.”

 

In 2004, The New York Post splashed John Kerry’s Vice Presidential choice on its front page: “Dem picks (Dick) Gephardt,” blared the headline. Except he didn’t. John Edwards got the nod.

In 2000, CNN reported that Al Gore had won Florida.

 

In 1981, President Reagan’s spokesperson, James Brady, was declared dead by news networks after being hit by one of John Hinkley’s bullets. He’s still alive.

 

Remember President Thomas E. Dewey? In 1948, The Chicago Tribune named him the winner of the presidential election. He wasn’t. Harry Truman was elected to a full term.

These are just a few examples – the list of incorrect media stories could include hundreds of others.

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that breaking news coverage is broken. I no longer trust the first wave of reporting on the cable news channels. In the rush to be first, they too often blow the story, or at least critical parts of the story.

We should be skeptical when reporters rely upon the wording “sources said.” Yes, anonymous sources are often reliable. But as we’ve seen from these high-profile examples, they’re too often wrong. And we, as viewers, have no way of determining the credibility of those anonymous sources. That has always been so, but in light of these major and recurring mistakes, it’s more so now than ever before.

From now on, I’m inclined to wait until law enforcement officials confirm stories publicly before fully believing them. You probably should too.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Why You Shouldn’t Evade, Obfuscate, Spin, Dodge Or Waffle

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 3, 2012 – 6:04 am

When some people learn that I’m a media trainer, their first reaction is to say, “Oh, so you teach people how to spin?”

I patiently explain (usually) that ethical media trainers don’t teach people to spin, since effective communication requires answering direct questions and offering authentic responses that don’t feel canned.

Evasion, obfuscation, spinning, dodging, hedging, sidestepping, and waffling doesn’t usually work.

If you're going to refuse to answer direct and obvious questions, should you turn down the interview?

Carlos Gutierrez, Co-Chair of the Romney Campaign’s Hispanic Steering Committee, proved the point when he appeared on CNN’s Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien last week. O’Brien’s rather direct question? “What is Mitt Romney’s position on SB 1070?” (SB 1070 refers to the controversial Arizona immigration policy.)

As you’ll see, Mr. Gutierrez was completely unprepared to offer a direct response. And she hammered him for it.

Even more damning, Ms. O’Brien played a clip from Rick Gorka, the Traveling Press Secretary for the Romney campaign, in which he, too, refused to comment on SB 1070.

After watching these exchanges, the public is left to conclude only one thing: The Romney campaign is terrified of the issue, wants to sidestep it, and isn’t willing to take a principled stand on immigration policy in either direction.

If I had been preparing Mr. Gutierrez for this interview, I would have told him that his answer was insufficient – especially because Ms. O’Brien is known as a challenging interviewer who asks tough follow-up questions. I would have advised him to either answer the question more directly or to bail on the interview altogether. Ms. O’Brien was right to press him for a direct response—I wish more interviewers followed her lead—and Mr. Gutierrez should have been willing to offer a better answer.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?

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June 2012: The Five Worst Video Media Disasters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 29, 2012 – 6:04 am

As we close out the first half of 2012, I’m happy to report that public figures didn’t let us down.

As usual, they committed a series of gaffes ranging from the bizarre…to the rude…to the downright cringeworthy.

So without any further ado, here’s this month’s collection, featuring a deceased spouse, some bad reporting, and an aggressive heckler.

And if you missed the ten worst media disasters of 2011, click here to catch up.

5. Hey, Martin Short: How’s Your Dead Wife Doing?

Today Show host Kathie Lee Gifford committed an embarrassing gaffe when she asked comic Martin Short how his wife was doing. The problem? Mr. Short’s wife, Nancy, died two years ago.

Two things are noteworthy about this gaffe. First, Ms. Giffords’ question suggested a more intimate friendship with the Shorts than she clearly had. Second, note Mr. Short’s incredibly graceful reaction. His poise during an uncomfortable moment only made him look better. 

Note: Although this occurred at the end of May, it missed the deadline for last month’s list.

 

4. CNN and Fox News Blow Supreme Court Call

In their zeal to report the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care law, two of the biggest cable news channels blew the story. Both incorrectly reported that the individual mandate was dead.

Given the history of blown media calls—which include “Gabrielle Giffords dead,” “Gore wins Florida,” and “Dewey beats Truman,” you’d think the networks would know better than to rush information to air.

 

3. British Member of Parliament Gets Pummeled By Interviewer

This was a classic interview with an “out of the loop” spokesperson.

Chloe Smith is a young (30-year-old) conservative member of the British Parliament who serves as the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. When she appeared on Jeremy Paxman’s Newsnight to discuss the decision to delay a planned increase in fuel taxes, she failed to answer even the most direct questions.

Many of Ms. Smith’s colleagues in Parliament were furious that her boss who made the decision, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, sent her to do the show instead of doing it himself. Cover your eyes when you watch this one.

h/t @simonbriault

 

2. Blogger Heckles President Obama’s Immigration Speech

Neil Munro, a blogger for Tucker Carlson’s conservative website The Daily Caller, heckled President Obama during his immigration speech by shouting a confrontational question at him: “Why are you favoring immigrant workers over Americans?”  

Mr. Munro later claimed that he thought the President was finished with his statement and simply mistimed his question. But no other reporters were similarly confused, and some said afterwards that it was clear the President was in mid-speech.

Tucker Carlson (with whom I worked at CNN and personally like) also belongs on this list for offering a spirited defense of Munro’s uncivilized behavior.

 

1. President Obama Says The Private Sector Is “Doing Fine”

While speaking about the economy at a press conference earlier this month, President Obama said, “The private sector is doing fine.” By some measurements, that may be true. But by making such a declarative statement, he handed his opponents a perfect opportunity to label him as “out of touch.” Hours later, he walked his comment back.

His gaffe was reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s “I like being able to fire people” gaffe. Neither sentence will likely determine the outcome of November’s election. But expect to see Republicans use President Obama’s gaffe against him—and probably with some success— in hundreds of ads this fall.

 

Bonus Video 1: Candidate Covers His Bases…In an Unusual Way

One week before the Supreme Court issued its verdict on “Obamacare,” Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock pre-taped his response to the outcome.

Of course, he didn’t know what the outcome would be, so he pre-taped a response for four different options. That may not be terribly unusual – but the fact that all four videos made their way onto the web was.

Here’s Stephen Colbert’s rather hilarious take.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert News Alert – Obamacare Supreme Court Ruling – Richard Mourdock’s Responses
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

 

Bonus Video 2: Honeywell Security Rips Microphone Away From Reporter

Mike Elk, a reporter with the progressive In These Times, tried to ask Honeywell CEO Dave Cote a question during an event at the U.S. Capitol. During his question, a burly security person ripped the microphone out of Elk’s hands, which turned a mere adversarial question into a viral video sensation.

Later that day, Mr. Elk accused Honeywell’s “external communications director Rob Ferris of barricading him in a room for several minutes,” according to PR Daily.

Had Mr. Cote simply answered the question (heck, even if he had dodged it), this would have been a non-story.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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