January 18, 2012

Last Thursday, CNBC Washington correspondent Eamon Javers published a report stating Bain & Company (of Mitt Romney fame) was consulted by Obama administration officials working on the auto bailout.

Javers’ source was a reference to “Bain Consulting” made in a report from the inspector general of the TARP program. He also contacted the PR department at Bain for confirmation, but didn’t hear back before publishing his story. (The report has since been taken offline.)

Not long after the story was published, Bain’s public relations team contacted CNBC to demand a retraction. Here’s how Javers describes the company’s reaction to his story:

In an email to CNBC late Thursday night, Bain & Company Global Public Relations Manager Dan Pinkney demanded an “immediate retraction” of the story. Pinkney said it was “factually incorrect” to say that Bain & Company had advised the Obama Administration on the auto bailout. He added that he believed CNBC had confused his firm with another consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group.

CNBC responded by issuing a correction Friday and pulling the initial story from its website, noting that Bain & Company said it was not connected to the firm in the inspector general’s report, which was referred to in the document as “Bain Consulting.”

The correction reads:

A previous story incorrectly reported that Mitt Romney’s former firm, Bain & Co., was part of a team of consulting companies that advised President Barack Obama on a decision to shutter car dealerships during the auto bailout.

Bain & Co. said it has no connection to the “Bain Consulting” firm referenced in government documents.

As one might expect, Javers’ initial report attracted attention due to Mitt Romney’s connection to Bain. Business Insider rounded up the reaction. Then CNBC issued its correction, which elicited additional reaction and, of course, criticism. Here’s Baltimore Sun TV/media critic David Zurawik laying into Javers:

That is a huge mistake — with enormous possible political consequences for Romney. I cannot imagine a reputable news organization not vetting the information before it came anywhere near publishing it.

You don’t make mistakes like this if you verify information before you air it on your cable channel or publish it on your website.

Javers was getting hammered until things started to turn. Business Insider contacted the Treasury to see if it could shed light on the CNBC mistake. In fact, the department ended up confirming that the reference to Bain Consulting was indeed Bain & Company. TVNewser also noted the new information, and the resulting confusion.

“Who knows why this has become such an issue. Sure, Republicans did not like the auto bailout, but Romney wasn’t even at Bain & Company at the time,” Business Insider wrote. “Either way, now the question is: Who dropped the ball on this one?”

Well, Javers followed up with a new report today that reconfirms his initial story, meaning his report was true and the resulting correction was incorrect.

It seems the folks at Bain are not as willing to admit their error as Javers was to respond to their request for correction. From his piece:

Presented with information that there had been at least two calls with the auto team and one with the inspector general, a spokeswoman for Bain & Company Tuesday afternoon said she could not confirm or deny contacts any partner had with the Obama team unless she was given the name of the partner and the date of the contact.

After CNBC provided the name, the spokeswoman called back. “I can confirm that Rouse responded to an unsolicited call from SIGTARP and provided Bain’s point of view on the relative cost positions of the major auto companies,” the spokeswoman said. She said Rouse had also responded to a similar earlier call from the Obama auto task force.

I contacted Javers to ask him more about this story, but CNBC PR declined to make him available to speak on the record. CNBC has, however, updated the incorrect correction to point readers to the new story and information.

It would be nice to see Bain PR be a little more human about their mistake — and it would also be good to see some of Javers’ critics — see here and here along with the above example from Zurawikupdate their posts to note that his reporting has been confirmed.

Update Jan. 18: I emailed Zurawik to see if the new reporting from Javers changed his initial view of how the story was (mis)handled by CNBC. In short: no.

“At this point based on what I read at the link [to the new CNBC story] you sent, I have not changed my opinion a bit as to the failure of CNBC to behave responsibly,” he wrote in an email.

Zurawik has several concerns about how the story was handled, and he outlines them in his full response:

CNBC aired unverified information. That’s the original sin. None of this confusion would have happened if CNBC had just followed that simple, basic rule: Journalism is a discipline of verification. Don’t publish or air anything you have not verified. It’s not Ok to say, “We called the company, but they didn’t call back right away, so we went with it.”

CNBC was so unsure of the information they aired, in fact, that they instantly retracted it when challenged by Bain.

Then, they did a semi-retraction of the retraction , saying, “Hey, maybe we were right after all — sort of right.”

Nothing about Bain and Obama’s bailout should have aired or published until they nailed it down one way or the other. My goodness, just look at all the different ways the various Bain companies are referenced and spelled in the CNBC reporting: Bain Consulting, Bain & Co., Bain and Company, etc…  That is typical of the lack or precision – some might say journalistic sloppiness – of the reporting.

This is also textbook case of how far our journalistic standards have fallen, especially at cable channels like CNBC.

It’s not good enough to say, “Hey, Maybe we were right, though, we didn’t know if we were at the time…”

It is even more amazing is that anyone thinks CNBC should feel any measure of vindication over their embarrassing behavior.

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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