January 9, 2020

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TV news deserves a pat on the back

We’re always so quick to jump on media outlets whenever they mess up, or get something wrong. (In fact, there will be some of that below.) But too often, we take for granted the good work being done amid difficult circumstances.

Now is a time to recognize the good journalism within a complicated news story. I’m talking specifically about network and cable television covering the tensions between the United States and Iran. There is plenty of hustle going on at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. (We also must admit, however, that those networks, particularly during primetime, are more about spin than news.)

But the major networks in particular have stepped up their game, proving again that they remain a trusted and relevant source when viewers are searching for pertinent news. For example, take a look at the photo above. That’s a shot of what viewers saw if they were watching NBC/MSNBC on Wednesday. It’s Richard Engel, the network’s chief foreign correspondent, reporting live from Erbil, Iraq. On the other side, it’s NBC Tehran bureau chief Ali Arouzi live from Iran. That’s the kind of on-the-ground, reporting-from-the-site, up-to-the-minute coverage viewers need and want.

Meanwhile, immediately following President Donald Trump’s address to the nation Wednesday morning, NBC’s Lester Holt showed off his skills as he set up a slew of NBC reporters and analysts for intelligent conversation. In dizzying fashion, Holt whipped around to Andrea Mitchell in the newsroom, Kristen Welker at the White House, Kasie Hunt on Capitol Hill, Courtney Kube at the Pentagon, to a split screen with senior foreign affairs analyst Brett McGurk, to Chuck Todd in the studio, to Engel in Iraq. The segment was sharp and smart, especially considering it was turned around within moments of Trump’s remarks.

Now I point out NBC’s coverage just as an example, but the same can be said about ABC and CBS. Both also are delivering their best work.

Cable and network streaming outlets are covering events around the clock, but the major networks are doing a commendable job breaking into regular programming when necessary — and only when necessary. They are not overdoing it, which can lead to viewers thinking the networks are crying wolf. (Now if we could only get the cable networks to simmer down on the “breaking news” graphics when it really isn’t breaking news.)

The networks have conducted themselves quite well in the past week, and we should recognize that.

More kudos, this time to Fox News

Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin deserves credit for breaking the story of the Iranian attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq on Tuesday. Griffin’s scoop allowed Fox News to be the first cable network on go on the air with the news.

And it was that reporting that helped to one of the best traffic days in the history of its site. A spokesperson at Fox News told me Griffin’s story on Tuesday drove to its third highest viewed day ever with 145 million page views. Only the day of and the day after the 2016 presidential election had more views. I also was told Griffin’s story was easily the most viewed on the website on Tuesday, showing that it’s not just opinion and analysis that drives Fox News’ traffic. Sometimes it’s solid straight reporting.

Meanwhile, Tuesday was a busy day for traffic on CNN’s website, too. had its fourth-highest traffic day ever with 40.6 million unique visitors. The three highest days were the day of and after the 2016 presidential election and the day of the Las Vegas shooting in 2017. There’s a chance that when Wednesday’s numbers are totaled up, will have as many as 44 million unique visitors, making it its fourth-biggest day ever.

Yes, mistakes are going to happen, but …

The headline above was an embarrassing mistake. The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana, wrote Wednesday that Iraq had attacked U.S. targets. Obviously, the headline should have said Iran. In a tweet, the paper apologized for the error, writing, “To our loyal and treasured print subscribers: We owe you this letter, and our deepest apologies for the error. A single character can make a huge difference.”

Clearly, this shouldn’t happen. But I’m not here to beat up The Herald-Times. Yes, it was a sloppy mistake, but all of us have misspelled a word or typed a wrong number. Even this newsletter, I have to admit, has had misspelled names or linked the wrong story in the past. It happens.

But just saying “it happens” doesn’t totally erase the damage, particularly in this time when much of the public is quick to shout out “fake news” or accuse the media of ignoring facts to push a political agenda.

Take this headline mistake as a cautionary tale. Credibility is always at stake. It’s a reminder to all of us to be extra careful, especially when reporting on topics as important as this.

How bizarre, how bizarre

Here’s the bizarre story of the day. How bizarre? So bizarre that the person credited with writing it claims she did no such thing. Then it got even weirder when the darn thing just, well, disappeared.

It started simply enough. Teen Vogue had a story with the headline “How Facebook is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election.” OK, seems like a worthwhile topic considering Facebook’s role in the 2016 election.

But the story seemed a little too pro-Facebook. It read as if it was written by Facebook. When observers pointed that out, suddenly a disclosure was added that said it was sponsored content. Facebook, at one point, claimed it was not sponsored content. Then there was a byline on the story, saying it was written by Teen Vogue contributor Lauren Rearick. When asked, Rearick told Mashable’s Jack Morse, “That isn’t my byline. I didn’t write this story.”

What the what?

Then the story was taken down. Why does any of this matter? Morse smartly writes, “The ham-fisted way this piece was run, then updated, then un-updated, pinned on Rearick, and pulled suggests a serious blunder by the online magazine, Facebook, or both. This is especially true when one considers the ostensible topic of the piece: integrity.”

Those must be some pretty convincing lyrics

This is a fascinating story involving three murders, rap music and the First Amendment.

It starts with The Toll. That’s a newsletter put out by the Indianapolis Star about violence in that city. I wrote about the newsletter last January and highly recommend it. The Star started it after the city opened 600 homicide investigations in four years.

In the latest edition, The Toll looks at what happened when three roommates were murdered during a robbery involving five other men. The investigation centered on one man. Police were tipped off to the suspect and, after searching his Facebook page, were led to a rap song he wrote, which authorities believe described the murder in detail.

Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears said only someone familiar with the crime could have come up with the lyrics. He told the Star, “That song is pretty consistent with the facts of the case. We pretty much broke it down, lyric by lyric.”

But now comes the debate of whether using rap lyrics in the trial were unfair to the defendant, who was convicted of murder and robbery.

University of Richmond professor Erik Nielson, who wrote the book “Rap on Trial,” told the Star, “(Rap) is a fictional form told in rhyme from the perspective of an invented narrator or character. It privileges figurative language (and) resides within a long rhetorical tradition of hyperbole or exaggeration. So that, to me, doesn’t sound like particularly useful evidence.”

Prosecutors say there was other evidence and some of the defendant’s co-defendants testified against him. Still, it’s a fascinating discussion. Crystal Hill wrote about the case for the IndyStar. Check out her story and then subscribe to the newsletter.

CNN settles with MAGA hat teen’s family


Remember the viral moment last year when a high school teenager wearing a Make America Great Again hat stood face to face with a Native American elder at a Washington, D.C., protest?

The incident became controversial when initial news stories claimed that the teenager, Nicholas Sandmann, blocked the elder from passing by and was the instigator in the ordeal. Sandmann claims he never impeded the path of the older man. Later, another video showing Sandmann and his high school friends being taunted by a group that called themselves Black Israelites provided more context to that day. The Sandmann family then sued several news organizations over the coverage.

Earlier this week, CNN, which was being sued for $275 million, settled with the Sandmann family. Terms of the settlement have not been disclosed. Lawsuits against NBC and The Washington Post are still pending. It’s not unusual for media companies to settle defamation suits to avoid costly and unpredictable trials.

Help from an unlikely ally

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

The newspaper industry’s long push to get an antitrust exemption so it can collectively negotiate with Facebook and Google got a big boost this week. As Bloomberg reported, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signed on a co-sponsor of such a measure. It already has substantial bipartisan support in both houses. Of course, that is no assurance it will pass — or that the tech giants will come to terms with the content producers.

Also, just before the Christmas break, a measure to grant independent newspapers an extension on 2020 mandatory contributions to their pension plans was tucked into the budget bill. The Seattle Times, Tampa Bay Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune will be among the beneficiaries.

Gradually, Congress appears to be buying into the case that local news urgently needs help.

Debate moderators announced

CNN announced Wednesday the moderators for next week’s Democratic presidential debate: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillip, and The Des Moines Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel. CNN will air the debate Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern. The deadline to qualify for the debate is Friday, and so far only five have qualified. They are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

If that number holds and only five qualify, it will be the fewest participants in the seven Democratic debates up to that point. While previous moderators have done mostly solid jobs handling 10 candidates at a time, five is clearly a more manageable number.

Is SVPod your next must-listen?

(Photo courtesy of ESPN)

I already listen to too many podcasts, but I’ll need to make room for another. ESPN announced Wednesday that charismatic SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt is getting his own pod called SVPod. The once-a-week podcast will debut Jan. 14. It will include longer, more in-depth interviews and commentary. Each episode will be generally between 30 and 45 minutes.

In a statement, Van Pelt said, “As much as I enjoy the SportsCenter show we get to do at midnight, it doesn’t always provide the time and space for all I want to get to. Obviously, a podcast allows as much leeway as we’d like. To take the deeper dives with guests, and flush out topics that matter, will be fun.”

Many fans of Van Pelt (count me as one) remember his days of superbly hosting a radio show from 2009-2015. Hosting a podcast allows him to get back to that kind of format.

“My love of radio was well documented and this is as close as I am likely to find for the time being,” Van Pelt said.

Hot type

  • The latest from Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan: The media should spotlight those who voted “no” on Iraq back in 2003.
  • A Facebook executive said he desperately wanted Donald Trump to lose the election, but warned employees to not use Facebook to tilt the scales against Trump. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac have the story. (And here’s the memo from the Facebook executive.)
  • Lawmakers did nothing to fix the problem. Then a Mississippi prison turned into a place of “grisly violence, gang control and subhuman living conditions.” A chilling report  from Jerry Mitchell of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, supported by ProPublica.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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