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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:45 PM ET, 01/04/2012

MSNBC’s Gary Johnson moment: What happened?


Maddow, making Goldberg look good. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) (Frederick M. Brown - GETTY IMAGES)
MSNBC accomplished the unfathomable on Tuesday night. It made Fox News contributor Bernard Goldberg look prescient.

In a Monday evening appearance on Fox News, Goldberg said this about how the cable stations would be approaching coverage of the Iowa caucuses:

Fox is going to be covering this with journalists. CNN is going to be covering the election night with journalists. MSNBC is covering it with five commentators whose views range from far left to really, really far left....They’re NBC, bring in a couple of news people to cover election night.

On Tuesday evening, Rachel Maddow, one of those commentators, brought MSNBC viewers the news that former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson had dropped his quest for the Libertarian Party nomination and would be endorsing Ron Paul.

Then it turned out not to be news. Joe Hunter, the communications director for Gary Johnson 2012, notes, “Some enterprising individual concocted an email, using a fake ‘Joseph Hunter’ gmail address, and issued a news release.” That release said pretty much what Maddow had spilled onto the airwaves.

Hoax city. To the credit of Maddow and MSNBC, a retraction came with speed and precision, though Maddow stammered a bit at the start:

The...news about Gary Johnson dropping his Libertarian Party bid and endorsing Ron Paul? Was a hoax...Sorry.

A panelist exclaimed, “That’ll happen,” and then the topic shifted to the “Pizza Ranch,” an Iowa dining institution that can deliver a box of chicken to your door. In addition to validating Goldberg, the slip-up earned MSNBC some bad press. David Zurawik, TV critic for the Baltimore Sun, wrote this:

All you need to know about MSNBC’s performance is that its anchor Rachel Maddow fell for a hoax and reported information that wasn’t true. She said Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was dropping his bid and endorsing Ron Paul. She later retracted that....
No one at CNN reported the hoax, because they actually verify information before they put it on the air.
I can’t wait for the next batch of “Lean Forward” ads from MSNBC with Maddow talking about journalism -- a discipline she appears to have spent not one day formally studying or practicing prior to becoming a show host and election-night anchor on MSNBC.

Justified slam by Zurawik.

Yet the details of the miscue mitigate it. After all, it’s not as if Maddow and her people didn’t seek confirmation. In fact, they beat the entire mediaverse to that task. Hunter: “The first I heard of it was from an NBC contact to whom it had been forwarded, and who actually called me to confirm -- or deny.” The call from NBC to Hunter came at 6:57 p.m, and Hunter called back with his firm denial at 7:01 p.m.

Over those four minutes, a snafu took place. Jeremy Gaines, a spokesperson for MSNBC notes that the hoaxy information was:

in our system for less than a minute (meaning the NBC News system)…..one person entered the information while someone else was calling the campaign to confirm. This is why it was removed so quickly. Unfortunately, we put it on the air during that brief timeframe and then quickly corrected.

MSNBC’s competitors over CNN were more careful about the proper way to sequence reporting and publishing. From a CNN source:

CNN saw the Gary Johnson information and as is CNN’s standard practice, the network did not report it until we did our own research. Our reporters reached out to Johnson’s campaign and they denied the claim. Thus, CNN ignored the story and did not report on air.

The episode shines a light on a workflow problem at NBC’s news operation, as well as on the realities of political journalism. This whole thing went down in the early evening of caucus night, before the networks could get their hands on anything approaching election results. So the hoaxster had an exquisite sense of timing, setting off a whole lot of pouncing. “Virtually every major outlet” hammered him with inquiries on the “news release.”

Perhaps the Fox News folks played it the smartest. According to a source with the network, they didn’t scramble to confirm or run anything on air.

By  |  04:45 PM ET, 01/04/2012

 
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