Fog horn of the fourth estate

Posted: Nov 16, 2000 12:00 AM
TV journalism means never having to be truly sorry. You would think that after last Tuesday's election coverage fiasco, the broadcast networks might show a smidgen of humility. Instead, NBC and MSNBC -- which led the blow-dried lemmings in erroneously awarding Florida to Vice President Al Gore -- ran self-congratulatory promotional ads this week. NBC bragged that more people watched (and were misled by) its political coverage than that of any other network. MSNBC proclaimed itself the station that gives you the "whole picture" (as clear and accurate as a fun house mirror reflection). Here is how CBS's veteran newsman Dan Rather "apologized" this weekend for making the disastrous mistake of declaring Gore the winner in Florida before polls had closed in that state and across the West, then retracting that call, then awarding Florida to George W. Bush, then declaring Bush the next president, then retracting that call as well: "It was a mistake. How many times do we have to say it?" Rather groused on CNN's "Reliable Sources." Rather puffed that "CBS News has by far the best record in the business on election nights." Appearing on the same show, ABC's Sam Donaldson cackled his way through an explanation for the media debacle. "Well, no one is happy about it. We have egg on our face, no question about it," Donaldson told host Howard Kurtz. Donaldson blamed bad data. "Garbage in-garbage out," Donaldson shrugged before promoting his program. "Tomorrow morning on 'This Week' on ABC, I'm going to make certain that Cokie (Roberts) and I explain chads in a way with graphics that everybody can get it. How's that for a plug?" The panel of journalism's best and brightest tittered in unison at Donaldson's shamelessness. These are the same bow-tied media mavens who pontificate endlessly about the gravity of their constitutionally protected roles, and who take every opportunity to lambaste cyberjournalists -- namely, Matt Drudge. It is no small irony that Drudge, who hosted a burgeoning national radio show, was fired by ABC this week under apparent pressure from news executives who deemed him a reckless rumor-monger with zero news credibility. Nothing Drudge has ever put on his eponymous Web site can match the journalistic sins committed by the unrepentant news divisions of the major TV networks last week. Indeed, what happened last Tuesday was just the latest in a long and embarrassing string of Old Media iniquities. Take just one network: It was ABC News that put Cokie Roberts in a coat, stood her in front of an image of Capitol Hill that was erected inside the network's Washington, D.C., studio, and misled viewers into thinking that she was actually reporting outside on the scene. Neither Roberts nor her producer was fired for deceiving the public. It was ABC News that hired baby-faced actor Leonardo DiCaprio to "interview" President Clinton for an Earth Day special (a story publicized by the Drudge Report). It was ABC News that hired baby-faced Clinton flack George Stephanopoulos not merely to act as a Sunday morning pundit -- but to actually play the role of journalist on the nightly news. It was ABC News that appointed John Cochran lead reporter on Gore's presidential campaign, knowing full well that Cochran and his wife were longtime friends of the Gores. And it was ABC News that put Carole Simpson in its weekend anchor chair, from which she "grilled" President Clinton with the following hardball question: ''I have to bask in this moment, for a moment, because I am here talking to the most powerful man on the planet, who was a poor boy from Arkansas ... I am an African-American woman, grew up working class on the south side of Chicago, and this is a pretty special moment for me to be here talking to you. How does it feel talking to me?" Next year, the fog horns of the Fourth Estate will gather at Beltway journalism award banquets to toast each other for cutting-edge coverage of Election 2000. "Pride goeth before destruction," the old Biblical proverb warns. In the broadcast news media's case, irrepressible hubris keeps growing long after the fall.