June 21, 2013

Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, CNN’s John King made a big mistake, reporting that authorities had made an arrest in the case. They hadn’t. Other outlets, including the Boston Globe and the Associated Press, made similar mistakes.

Coverage of the bombings case was an all-encompassing affair, not only for news outlets but for the ever-growing American demographic of media critics. Whose attention wasn’t riveted to the search for the guilty parties that week? And the embarrassment for CNN over the mistaken report was accordingly colossal. To judge from some voices, this breakdown represented a media apocalypse.

Egg-on-CNN-face notwithstanding, Howard Kurtz’s CNN media-crit program addressed the mistake from the network’s Washington studio just days after it happened. The Erik Wemple Blog, in fact, was on the panel. Freedom of expression prevailed, as the transcript proves:

KURTZ: Let me come back to what happened on Wednesday. This was on my view a significant mistake that unfortunately marred what has been a solid week of coverage by CNN — to examine CNN for a moment. You had a lot of boots on the ground and elsewhere.
But — and the ratings have been huge so people are still tuning in — but let’s also point out that unlike in the Richard Jewell case and lot of other cases I can mention. That report didn’t slander anyone. Nobody was named. It was just a story about an arrest that did not happen.
My question is what if John King’s sources had been right? And what if he had gotten it first and then 10, 20 minutes, other organizations had gotten it, and the Boston police announced there was an arrest?
LAUREN ASHBURN (FOUNDER, DAILY DOWNLOAD): He’d be a hero.
KURTZ: He’d be a hero.
WEMPLE: I do not think he would be a hero. I do not think he would be a hero. I think we would have forgotten about it.
KURTZ: Is that a good enough scoop to take the risk of the downside that you might be wrong?
WEMPLE: And the big problem we’re not mentioning here is the dark skin moment, where he felt compelled to bring out this detail that the suspect was dark-skinned. And he had said that he had withheld several other details, but he decided to spill that one on us. I didn’t see what possible use that was.
KURTZ: All right. King says that he was simply repeating what law enforcement sources told him.
But now, let’s look at why there’s so much attention on CNN. Look, it was very prominent. It went on for about 45 minutes to an hour.
But as we mentioned, “Associated Press”, “Boston Globe”, local Boston TV station, also got it wrong, yet CNN seems to have gotten most attention.
Joe Concha, why is that?
JOE CONCHA: Well, because CNN, Jeff Zucker said this earlier in the week, it’s a spare tire –
KURTZ: Chief executive of CNN.
CONCHA: Yes, exactly. It’s the spare tire in the car. So when a big news story breaks, you know, let’s go to CNN because they are the best at breaking news. They always have been.

The record shows that Kurtz was forcefully representing the position of his employer, CNN. But who cares? He was presiding over the discussion of a CNN mistake on CNN’s air.

Yesterday brought the news that Kurtz will be moving to Fox News and remaking that network’s media-crit program, “Fox News Watch.”

In July 2011, a massive phone-hacking scandal descended on a corporate cousin of Fox News under the roof of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. It was the only story that media critics were talking about at the time. Nothing else could break through the depravity of a UK-based Murdoch tabloid breaking into people’s voicemails and messing with their lives, all in pursuit of inconsequential scooplets.

Now, how did “Fox News Watch” handle the situation? By not handling it. Have a look at the video below.

Media Matters has documented occasions on which “Fox News Watch” has somehow managed to skip over media controversies related to its own organization. Kurtz told Mediaite’s Noah Rothman yesterday: “So, I’m very comfortable that I’ll have the freedom to criticize anyone I need to in my new role.”

Onlookers cannot lose here. If Kurtz manages to turn “Fox News Watch” into an instrument of intramural oversight, that’ll be fascinating, not to mention a credit to Fox News. If, on the other hand, he fails to find time to dissect his network’s occasional atrocities, that’ll be worth noting as well.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.