Speed Kills

With apologies to Charles Dickens–after all this is about nothing if not apologies–Howard Kurtz screwed up. This must be distinctly understood or nothing useful can come of the story I am about to relate.

I have been watching with a mix of emotions the hammering of Howard Kurtz over a series of errors he made, one apparently compounding another. I was once the victim of someone speaking faster than I could take good notes. The result was I missed a key piece of context, wrote up a speech that got a high-profile pontificator in hot water, and was humbled in Kurtz’ Washington Post column (which tells you how long ago it was), and deservedly so. I have not made many big gaffes, I think, but this was the biggest.

Kurtz treated me decently, and I will do the same, not simply out of professional courtesy but also because it is more instructive to learn from people’s mistakes than take shots at them from the sidelines.

I think this is a good “teaching” moment for the media in a “there but for the grace of Editors or dumb luck go I” sense. CNN seemed to think so, putting Kurtz through an extremely tough and humbling grilling on his own show, Reliable Sources, from Dylan Byers, media reporter for Politico, and David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR News. CNN appeared to be trying to establish why viewers should continue to judge Kurtz, himself, as a “reliable source. ” Folkenflik and Byers were unflinching, using terms like “sloppy” and “reckless” and suggesting others had been fired for lesser transgressions. Kurtz was a little defensive, but mostly he took his medicine and promised to do better next time.

It sounds to me like Kurtz’ major problem was being spread too thin and trying to do too much, which is an occupational hazard for journalists these days as they (we) jump from platform to platform while trying to juggle numerous responsibilities.

More often than not, major media now have fewer filters-social media essentially have none-as journalists do their own reporting and shooting video and editing and proofing and fact checking and going wide on air or social media. Those filters have been slammed by a generation of user-generators, but they are also safety nets, and working without one can be dangerous. Think Flying Wallendas spinning plates at the same time with nothing to catch them (the plates or the people)  if they fall.

We now have a tool that affords us a huge, immediate audience, often without benefit of the editors and proofers and second-guessers that used to be an unavoidable part of the mediation function of major news operations. The power of the blog and the Tweet have put pressure on traditional news operations to be just as fast and hip, and shooting-from-the-hip, which can mean shooting yourself in the foot if you’re not careful.

Kurtz also got into some hot water for a Tweet attempting to downplay his gaffe of criticizing Jason Collins, the gay pro athlete, for not admitting in a Sports Illustrated story that he had been engaged to a woman when, in fact, Collins did indeed reveal that. Ah, the ease of pulling the trigger on a Tweet and that moment when you ask yourself, just before you do, whether it is the right thing to do and what the consequences might be. That moment needs to be a long one, with plenty of thought applied, particularly if you are in the news media.

Lauren Ashburn of the Daily Download was collateral damage from the Kurtz/Collins incident, and illustrated yet another problem–corrections.

She apologized on her Web site for having taken down a video with Kurtz in which he made that erroneous assertion, but did not correct the original misimpression the video had given.

It is so easy to change electrons, while print mistakes point an accusing finger from the page for years, decades, centuries. But if even one person has read the wrong information, they deserve to have that impression corrected. My guess is most Web journalists have quickly, or not so quickly, corrected a mistake in a story online and either believed or convinced themselves that was the same as running a correction. It’s not. There may be some gray area if the mistake is small enough and caught quickly enough, like the spelling of a name. But for most errors, the right thing to do is own up and correct it. What it costs in humility pays dividends in respect, unless you make too many of them…

So, let’s recap:

Careful what you Tweet, and even what you don’t given recent Twitter hacks; recognize that you are being asked, or asking yourself, to do a lot at the same time, and understand that if accuracy becomes a casualty, so will your credibility; and, changing something online or taking down a post is usually not enough. Take your lumps and admit the mistake so others will not repeat it. And when I say “your,” I mean “mine” to.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.