Watchdog Blog

Carolyn Lewis: First Get the Story, Then Interpret It

Posted at 10:38 am, March 23rd, 2008
Carolyn Lewis Mug

Take a piece of news just arrived on the Associated Press wire and combine it with a television pundit of large ego and you have a combustible piece of journalism. So it was on the evening of March 20 on MSNBC.

That night, in prime time, Keth Olbermann was so aroused by a report that somebody at the State Department had improperly looked into Barack Obama’s passport files, that he dedicated his entire hour to the story as the reporting on it was just beginning. With breathless intensity, he repeated the snippet of information again and again, now and then pausing to ask colleagues to explain and speculate on something that as yet was crowded with uncertainty. [From the broadcast, here's a You Tube of Olbermann with MSNBC reporter David Shuster that gives a feel for the show.]

As the program wore on Olbermann stepped deeper into the mire, drowning himself in absurdity. The facts at the time were still new and just beginning to develop, yet he was sure that there was political skulduggery afoot. It was, of course, perfectly acceptable to raise questions and to pursue answers, but it was hard to see why a story that was so factually flimsy at the time would merit a full hour of bloviating and indignation.

By the following day, it was learned that persons who did the prying had been looking at the files of other candidates, too. On first glance, the story seemed to reveal that at some levels of a government bureaucracy people did stupid things. On hearing about it, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice apologized for it.

Given time, it may be found that the above analysis doesn’t go far enough–that there is more to this snooping. But that merely emphasizes the dangers of trying to make news live on the air when the necessary background and facts haven’t been gathered.

As I write this, Olbermann’s hour-long harangue on the issue is turning out to be much ado about not much. Surely an hour of prime time television is too valuable in these troubled times to be so mindlessly squandered.

5 Responses to “First Get the Story, Then Interpret It”

  1. Thomas says:

    “Surely an hour of prime time television is too valuable in these troubled times to be so mindlessly squandered.”

    Obviously you don’t watch much Olbermann.

  2. Damail says:

    Well, don’t assume that Olbermann is interested in telling the truth, anyway. He never is.

  3. Tina D says:

    I wonder if Olbermann will have an hour on Obama’s adviser. NOT!

  4. eddy says:

    If pre-empting Countdown for this premature story wasn’t bad enough, the next show — Verdict with Dan Abrams — also spent the entire show breathlessly covering the same topic. They are either fools or tools.

  5. How to Get Six Pack Fast says:

    My friend on Orkut shared this link and I’m not dissapointed that I came here.

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