Anchors, Reporters Plagued by Learning Problems

Some of broadcast news’s biggest names are among the biggest learners: they tell us they’ve learned this or learned that. And though they usually imply they’ve learned something important, what they’ve learned is often not new, or not true, or not theirs alone.

An odd learning disorder showed up on Feb. 6. ABC News’s senior White House correspondent, Jake Tapper, was anchoring “World News Sunday” at 6:30 p.m. ET, when he began a story:

“We’re learning more tonight about an unusual story of survival in Wisconsin. During the [correct: a] blizzard, Joe Latta slipped in waist-high snow at the end of his driveway and then was buried when a snowplow pushed snow on top of him. He was stuck for four hours and feared he would die. But then a neighbor saw his hand.”

Learning more? Tonight? About an accident that happened four and a half days earlier? What could be learned that hadn’t already been reported elsewhere? Tapper’s story was ABC News’s first about Latta’s ordeal. So you might be tempted to call the ABC crew slow learners.

An article in Wisconsin’s Janesville Gazette said Latta slipped in the snow about 5 a.m. CT, Wed., Feb. 2. The paper said a curious neighbor was looking through binoculars and noticed Latta’s hand. Although Tapper told viewers, “We’re learning more tonight,” he delivered a lot less than the Gazette and The Associated Press did the day after the rescue.

After Tapper said a neighbor saw Latta’s hand, he presented nine words from Latta and 33 words from his rescuer. Tapper then said Latta was treated in a hospital. End of ABC’s story. But ABC did not even tell us Latta’s age: 66. Or occupation: autoworker, retired. Or where Latta lives: Janesville.

Another learner, NBC’s White House correspondent, Savannah Guthrie, was co-host of the “Today” show’s Sunday edition on Jan. 30, when she said, “We’ve learned that the president spoke to Saudi King Abdullah, and the king told President Obama there should be no bargaining about the stability and security of the Egyptian people.” Well, I, too, did a little learning: the AP moved a story from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at 4:40 a.m. ET that day about the telephone conversation. AP’s lead: “The Saudi press agency says King Abdullah has told President Barack Obama that there should be no bargaining about Egypt’s stability and the security of its people.”

Nothing wrong with Guthrie’s borrowing from the AP, not at all. But Guthrie’s “We’ve learned” might make most listeners think NBC News had obtained something to crow about.

Two days later, Guthrie said on “Nightly News,” “We’ve learned that Frank Wisner, who is a veteran diplomat, retired, was dispatched by the Obama administration to speak to Mubarak and did speak to him on Monday. [The State Department had disclosed Wisner’s dispatch to Cairo more than 27 hours earlier.]

“The message from President Obama was, Don’t run for re-election in September. That, of course, is exactly what Mubarak said today [Tuesday]….” Did Mubarak look in the mirror and tell himself, “Don’t run for re-election”? Guthrie said Wisner met with Mubarak on the previous day, Monday. The AP had also said that. But the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal website, Dow Jones News Service, Reuters and the BBC all said it was Tuesday. Which it was.

Diane Sawyer, anchor of ABC’s “World News,” had a curious learning experience:

“Today [Jan. 3], we learned new details about what the Navy calls clearly inappropriate video shown to six-thousand sailors aboard a giant nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.” And she called the skipper “one of the Navy’s most powerful commanders.” His rank is captain. Commander happens to be a rank just below captain. But the (now former) skipper’s rank is captain. Was he one of the most powerful (whatever that means)? He commanded a carrier. But the Navy has 11 carriers–and a few thousand captains. And he’s outranked by all admirals, a few hundred.

As for those new details Diane Sawyer promised: the only fact in the ABC package new to me was the captain’s middle initial. In fact, what she called “new details about what the Navy calls clearly inappropriate video” had all been previously reported in one place or another, as had every other element of ABC’s presentation.

The correspondent whom Sawyer introduced, Martha Raddatz, had been credited at with reporting, “The U.S. Navy will temporarily relieve Capt. Owen Honors of his post pending investigation of the series of explicit videos he is said to have produced.…” Her article was posted at 3:26 p.m. ET. But Sawyer’s newscast did not mention it.

Three hours after ABC’s posting, the NBC anchor Brian Williams said on “Nightly News,” “Tonight, NBC News has learned what the punishment will be for the captain of an aircraft carrier….” NBC’s Pentagon correspondent went on to say the captain would be “temporarily relieved of his command”–as ABC’s Raddatz had said. That news did deserve reporting at 6:30, but NBC’s script would have been cleaner and leaner without the learning.

Everything that anchors or reporters tell us is something they’ve learned. So they should go ahead and report it. Have you ever heard a weathercaster say, “I’ve learned that the temperature is 70 degrees”?

If we were all subjected to less newscast hype, maybe we’d be less hyper.

© Mervin Block 2011