Out of The West: Stretching facts to boost the ratings

WASHINGTON - In this imperfect news business of ours there are, as they say, mistakes and mistakes. For the variety made in good faith, nothing beats the New York Times.

Every day, buried at the bottom of page 2 beneath the summary of contents, the Old Lady of West 43rd Street publishes a list of corrections. All human life is there, from a 'mislabelled' statistic on Saudi oil production, to the 'misstated' date of a kidnap letter.

The average daily crop is half a dozen or so, and so quirky can they be that, for aficionados, the corrections have achieved virtual cult status.

Take this specimen, couched in the wonderfully elliptic language for which they are celebrated: 'A picture caption on page B1 in some editions on Monday, referring to an article about a dispute between two Greek Orthodox groups, misidentified the clergyman before the Weeping Icon. He was Bishop Vikentios.'

The reader who missed the original story is agog with curiosity. But the important thing is that this mistake, and the others the Times owns up to every day, were not deliberate; indeed, the very admission of them curiously enhances the authority of the paper. Not so the mega- blooper perpetrated by NBC television news.

In a Dateline NBC programme last November, the network staged a crash of a General Motors truck, to show how some models were prone to explode in a collision. This vehicle duly did so. Unfortunately, NBC failed to inform viewers that to ensure a successful experiment, it had fitted the truck with small incendiary rockets.

The commentary was unequivocal. Not: 'We've installed some devices to show what might happen.' Buy a GM truck, anyone watching was told in so many words, and this is what does happen.

The car company uncovered the deception and sued. NBC's reaction was to brazen things out. But on 9 February, with defeat in the courts almost certain, Dateline offered an unqualified retraction, what Ben Bradlee, the former Washington Post editor, used to call a 'full grovel'. Heads doubtless will roll. But repercussions may not end there.

For one thing, the episode has been a colossal own goal. As this month's dollars 105.2m ( pounds 75m) damages to the parents of a victim of one such crash suggests, there is a pretty solid case against General Motors trucks. Instead, NBC's caper has achieved the remarkable feat of generating public sympathy for poor little GM.

After a barrage of accusations in the election campaign, the reputation of the national media - print and broadcast alike - for fairness and honesty has taken another hit. Not least, and pardon the pun, the GM-NBC affair was an accident waiting to happen between two unsalubrious trends in US television journalism.

The first, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out the other day, is the ever-growing entanglement of product liability lawyers with investigative reporting. The NBC fiasco, in which an unacknowledged 'adviser' on the programme was a professional plaintiff's witness in a host of previous lawsuits against car firms, is an example of such 'litigation journalism'.

Others can be even more blatant, where liability lawyers themselves use the media to promote cases where they stand to make a killing - in essence trial by television, rather than the courts. And for a reporter, what better than a 'scoop' expose, especially one as televisual as exploding trucks? Which leads to the second trend, our old friend 'info-tainment'.

Traditional television news magazines such as Dateline face competition as never before; not just from independent 'tabloid' shows, but from the networks' own entertainment divisions, who pay huge money to persuade people to tell saucy or sordid tales (witness the spate of television re-enactments of the story of 'Long Island Lolita' Amy Fisher).

What price Gennifer Flowers? The news shows will not sink that low. But they, too, live and die by the ratings. Balanced reporting tends to be boring, and excesses are probably inevitable. So why not a regular on- screen corrections slot, as in print in the New York Times? Who knows, it might gain a cult following in the ratings.

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