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When Bad Things Happen to Good Journalists

When Bad Things Happen to Good Journalists

I will get no pleasure from writing this piece. 

For all I know, in a day or a month or a year, someone could be talking about me as a cautionary tale, a journalist who screwed up, unintentionally getting the facts wrong on a big story.

CNN’s John King and the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz recently made glaring errors on high-profiles stories. Kurtz incorrectly wrote that basketball player Jason Collins, who came out and said he was gay in a cover story he wrote for Sports Illustrated, didn’t note that he had been engaged to a woman. (Collins brought up the subject in the SI piece). 

Kurtz subsequently left the Daily Beast although it is not clear whether the story embarrassing forced his exit. (I suspect that the Daily Beast was pleased not to have to pay Kurtz his big salary any longer, too)

Meanwhile, King said prematurely on CNN that police had arrested a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing case. King took the high road and issued a public apology/explanation and has continued working at CNN. 

These are unfortunate events because Kurtz and King have had well regarded careers. In a previous job, I profiled both of them over the years — and wrote glowing accounts of their work. 

Kurtz hosts CNN’s media-criticism program Reliable Sources on Sunday mornings. King has reported on presidents for CNN and is widely recognized as one of the best White House correspondents. You wouldn’t them to make these kinds of mistakes. But it happens.

In general, why do good journalists make bad errors?

I would suggest that it centers on a malady I have dubbed: 

Scoop Madness. 

Journalists love to be first. We LOVE getting scoops. Even though the shelf life of an exclusive story nowadays is about six seconds in the Internet age, it gives a reporter a warm glow to know that he or she has beaten the competition. 

But the drawback is that a reporter may try too hard to make a scoop come true and bend the facts or take shortcuts or trust the wrong people — because you want so much for it to be true. There is more competition now than ever before, what with the advent of bloggers.

The frenzy to obtain a scoop can lead to carelessness. Kurtz, it seemed, hadn’t taken the time to gather the facts that were available to him by perusing the SI piece. King may have trusted the wrong sources. Was he careless in doing that? Probably not. But it can look that way to an onlooker. Perhaps the compulsion to get the story before anybody else clouded his good judgment.

Kurtz and King have both paid stiff prices for their high-profile errors. They both represent cautionary tales in the profession.

MEDIA MATRIX QUESTION: Do you trust what journalists write or say to be true?

Please feel free to leave your comments here.

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