It’s been a turbulent week for local and national TV news.
On Sunday, A.J. Clemente, a weekend news anchor making his debut on a Bismarck, N.D., affiliate, inadvertently dropped the F and S bombs on live TV.
The rookie anchor failed to adhere to a truism of broadcast journalism: Once a microphone is in place, assume viewers can hear everything.
“Just like you always treat a gun like it’s loaded, you always treat a microphone like it’s on,” said Jim Blue, WNWO-TV, Channel 24, news director and a veteran anchor. “I’ve told many young reporters and anchors, always assume the microphone is on.”
Only a few days earlier CNN reporters and anchors, during the early stages of the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath, incorrectly reported for more than a half-hour that a “dark-skinned male” suspect had been arrested. Fox News and the Boston Globe also chimed in with similar updates.
While there were no profanities during CNN’s broadcast, one assumes there were some choice words used in high-level meetings later.
“I don’t know for a fact that somebody got fired for that, but they could have,” Blue said. “And I think most of us think they should have.”
Clemente’s blooper highlight, now approaching 1.5 million views on YouTube (tinyurl.com/cxpx7pa), was a viral sensation. Rather than castigating him, the majority rushed to his defense after he was suspended by station management, but to no avail; Clemente was fired the next day.
Jackie Layng, a communications professor at the University of Toledo, was amazed it took that long.
“I was surprised he was suspended for a day. He should have been fired as soon as he got off the air,” she said. “It was not just the profanity, he just looked totally inept ... his lack of professionalism and the fact that he didn’t know what he was doing. He made a number of mistakes.”
Clemente has since made the rounds on network TV shows as cause célèbre and is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame — some might suggest infamy.
For CNN, which markets itself as “The Most Trusted Name in News,” the fact-check fallout has been considerably uncharitable from other news media and the blog-o-sphere, and provided considerable late-night fodder, for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in particular.
But which is worse? A young anchor’s mistake in saying words that most of us hear and use on a daily basis? (Sorry, Mom.) Or that a major news outlet rushed to be first but not necessarily accurate with updates during a headline-grabbing calamity?
Blue considers CNN’s on-air reporting gaffes to be “far worse,” while Layng said both incidents are egregious errors that are not comparable.
“I guess I don’t think of it as an either-or,” she said. “Anything that takes away from the credibility of the content hurts the news and it hurts the news outlet.”
Still, if there is a bright spot in this week o’ shame for broadcast journalism, it’s that these failures make great “teachable moments” for Layng and other journalism professors.
When she played the Clemente clip for her students, his on-air blunders were so awful and pitiful “they didn’t believe what they were seeing. Some thought it was fake.”
Even worse? Her students did what CNN and other news outlets failed to do: ferreted out accurate facts through reputable sources, and learned for themselves that an arrest had not been made in the bombing investigation — even as the network continued to report it.
“They did the proper reporting ... go to primary sources and verify,” Layng said. “They did what the professionals didn’t do.”
By class end, she offered this declaration to the future reporters; a sobering pronouncement of journalism’s failed state and a call to arms to fix it.
“Hey, folks, the news is broken. And it’s up to your generation to fix it.”
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.