Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reporters Latch Onto Scandal Like Ticks on an Ankle; They'll Drop When the Next Ankle Comes Along

"Dirty little secrets
Dirty little lies
We got our dirty little fingers in everybody's pie
We love to cut you down to size
We love dirty laundry

"We can do 'The Innuendo'
We can dance and sing
When it's said and done we haven't told you a thing
We all know that Crap is King
Give us dirty laundry!"

     -- Don Henley, "Dirty Laundry"  (http://www.lyricsfreak.com/d/don+henley/dirty+laundry_20042033.html)

I'm among the few who seldom criticize the news media. After all, I was once they. Much has changed since my reporter and news bureau manager days, but I think I still understand pretty well what makes the media tick. The trouble I'm having lately is that the David Petraeus scandal and its supporting cast of characters have taken on the appearance of a different tick -- the blood-sucking kind.

I could refer you to many in-depth stories about Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley, but if you care even minimally, you've already read enough of them. I'm to the point where I would rather read more about the fiscal cliff and watch reruns of 2012 political ads than hear more about the Petraeus mess.

Nevertheless, I want to share two lessons we can learn, if we haven't figured them out already. First, we love a juicy story. Petraeus represents power, Broadwell represents the wide-eyed admirer, and Kelley is a down-on-her-luck wife and mother with unofficial ties to military leadership who is sucked into international intrigue. If you don't think tawdry tales like this are hot, peruse the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Reporters "do 'the innuendo,'" but "we all know  that Crap is King."

Howard Kurtz, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, can step back and call the laundry what it is: dirty. "Let's concede up front that the story is inherently fascinating. A general with a walk-on-water reputation abruptly quits the CIA and admits an extramarital affair. His mistress turns out to be his admiring biographer, who hawked her book all over television.

"Then we learn that she triggered an FBI probe by sending what were perceived as harassing e-mails to a military volunteer in Tampa -- and that a friendly FBI agent allegedly sent that woman shirtless photos. All of which was a prelude to the reports that Gen. John Allen, who in his spare time is running the war in Afghanistan, exchanged up to 30,000 e-mails with said Tampa woman."  (http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/15/opinion/kurtz-media-petraeus/index.html)

"All the news that's fit to print," claims the New York Times (or "fit to click" in its online form). A juicy story, even in a rumor form, can wreck lives and careers -- and your organization if it happens to someone you work for or with. I once worked at a corporate headquarters where the COO was known to be a ladies' man. His affairs never reached the headlines, but they could have. I was too naive to recognize the risk to the company, and if I had, I would have been too intimidated to point out this smoldering crisis. We can't afford environments where even lowly editorial services associates like me don't pass along potential crises.

The second thing to take away from this coverage is that perhaps we need to cut a break to those in the news who are conveniently not available for comment. I've often been critical in my posts, usually with good reasons, when someone offers a no comment or doesn't return calls before deadline.

When is deadline? These days, deadline is 60 seconds from now. I wonder how often the unavailable for comment is really the reporter saying, "I've got to beat those other guys with this gem of a story and can't wait for a statement."

This point was driven home to me in a CNN story about Jill Kelley. "CNN could not reach the Justice Department for comment." (http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/27/us/jill-kelley-legal-team/index.html?hpt=hp_t2) Is this to say that no one at the office or on call in the Justice Department had a statement ready about Kelley's legal team threatening action under the Privacy Act? How hard can it be to reach the Justice Department?

Either: CNN didn't allow enough time for a response before posting this item; no one in the Justice Department was ready with an approved response; or the department chose to ignore the request for comment.

Everyone makes mistakes -- even reporters and four-star generals. "But we have reached the point where the enormity of the media spectacle far exceeds the news value of the revelation that one of America's top military leaders was also a flawed human being."

I'm eagerly awaiting the next breaking news story that brings about the removal of reporters from Kelley's front lawn.

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