Reuters' Distortion and CNN's Drama

September 14th, 2005 2:52 AM

Call me idealistic, but I somehow always expect that correspondents, videographers, and editors -- especially those on network shows -- will learn to hold themselves to higher reporting and promotion standards in the inteest of ojectivity. Of course, I nearly always wind up asking myself, "What were you thinking?"

Perhaps, though, it would just be easier to ask the folks on CNN and Reuters the same thing. Twice today, I saw them employ typical promotional manipulation tactics of George Bush's taking responsibility for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and wind up changing the context of his so-called accountability.

In the first instance, Reuters used the headline 'BUSH: I TAKE RESPONSIBILITY.' But in reality, what he really said was, "...government failed at all levels, Federal, state, and local. TO THE EXTENT THAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT DIDN'T FULLY DO ITS JOB RIGHT, I TAKE RESPONSIBILITY," adding that he wants a full report on the breakdowns and where they occured so he presumably knows what "the extent" IS.

But here's the deal. There's a vast different between what the headline instantly implies and what the article itself may or may not necessarily support.

'I take responsibility' says, "I know all the details and I stand responsible for the whole ball of wax."

'To the extent...,' preceded by the reference to all levels of government says something entirely different. It says that "while people have died and countless billions will be spent rebuilding New Orleans, the truth is that this was a system-wide failure. I'm willing to assume responsibility for the Federal government's share of this tragedy, but we've ALL got to do a lot of digging to get to its root causes. States and municipalities, upon whom we should be depending to be the Fed's eyes on the front lines, supposedly had quality leaders in charge before the storm. Now we have to assume that's not necessarily true.'

Sure Bush didn't SAY those exact words. But 'TO THE EXTENT' goes a long way toward implying them. That Reuters chose to pull 'I take responsibility' out of context for the purpose of a headline, changes -- or at least influences -- the perception of Bush's statement.

The same can be said of a bumper tease of the same story that CNN ran on Larry King Live late on Tuesday night. Bumper teases are those short bits that "tease" the story you'll see on the other side of the commercial break. They generally come fast and furious, and I can tell you from firsthand experience, editors will do anything to get you to stay tuned for those two long minutes of bill-paying.

In this case, the tease and its corresponding video included the Bush soundbite sans 'TO THE EXTENT THAT..." The net result '...the Federal government failed, I take responsibility.'

You can't get more out-of-context than this, folks!

That second statement flat out admits complete culpability. The first says there's a bigger picture. CNN teased the story with the more inflammatory half of the soundbite. The editor of the tease -- and believe me, I wrote countless teases like this in my TV career -- nailed George Bush to the cross (sorry, George).

Africa Correspondent Pushes the Wrong Point

In another instance of "purposeful" drama on Sunday, CNN's Jeff Koinange, for some reason brought in from Africa to report from New Orleans (I'll bite my tongue for now), went toe-to-toe with an army captain intent on preventing his videographer from photographing the removal of bodies after a First Amendment ruling saying it was okay.

Whatever you or I think of journalists' decisions to photograph and show dead bodies in general is irrelevant to what actually happened (journalists will always win the First Amendment argument, anyway). Koinange, an educated and experienced reporter, was apparently more interested in conflict and drama, at least for the moment.

Koinange wanted to photograph the dead. The captain said 'no.' He clearly hadn't gotten the word about the legal ruling.

But did Koinange stand down and work his way up the chain of command with a quick couple of phone calls? Nope. He waved a letter from CNN's attorney in the captain's face instead.

Jeff, this guy wasn't the decision-maker, and you knew it! Why the posturing?

Ths kind of drama isn't unusual, of course (I shot plenty of it -- and blood -- as a news photog). But it's also unnecessary. In ten minutes (fifteen tops), Koinange could have arranged for this captain to get the official word, Then all Koinange had to do was point and shoot.

Unfortunately, though, that's not how you get what news junkies call "sexy TV." And Koinange, a veteran of numerous conflict zones in Rwanda, Liberia,and Iraq, knew it instinctively. He just didn't want YOU to know it.

Of course, moments like these are as numerous as flies on a muddy New Orleans avenue. But the next time you indulge in American reportage, pull up and take a helicopter's view of the story. Then ask yourself, these two questions: (1) What's the real point of the story?, and (2) Does the reporting and photography of the story support a balanced view of that point?

In the meantime, I'll stop asking the question that I just can't seem to avoid posing so often (especially these days):

Is it possible for TV news to be objective?