- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

DALLAS, April 20 (UPI) — Recently, the Project for Excellence praised the objectivity of reporters covering the Iraq war. Better questions would be, "Is the press fair in the choices it makes in its editing?" And: "Does the press have an interest or mechanism to correct mistakes or unfair portrayals?" Too often, the answer is "No." Here are two very recent examples.

The Carolina Donor Services is an organization that collects organs for transplantation. The CDS had the unfortunate distinction of collecting the heart and lungs transplanted into Jesica Santillan, the Guatemalan girl who immigrated illegally into the country, desperate for medical help. As the world now knows, the blood type of the organs did not match Jesica, and after a failed second transplantation attempt, she died.

The CBS Sunday night documentary program "60 Minutes" did a story on what went wrong, interviewed the director of the CDS, and — on air — asked if the CDS had requested Jessica's blood type to make sure the donor's blood type matched.

On air, the CDS director said that they hadn't checked. This exchange made CDS look callous and incompetent. More negative stories followed. However, as with most things there is a deeper explanation that didn't make the segment.

The CDS has an established checklist — they call it a 'chain of custody' — of who is supposed to do what. The collection agency is responsible for relaying the blood type of the organs, not for checking who the recipient is or what his or her blood type is. The reason why is obvious: the recipient may change.

One might argue that both ends of the supply chain should check, but that isn't the issue. The CDS did everything exactly right. The "60 Minutes" program refused to apologize, explain the greater context or add anything to its story. A spokesman for 60 Minutes was quoted in news reports saying, "There's nothing more to say than" — CDS Director — "Mr. Jordan said what he said, and we put it on the air." Their position is that they can pick and choose any snippet even if it portrays an inaccurate story.

The same thing happened to Turner Construction, one of the world's largest construction companies. "60 Minutes" did a piece about how some American families are suffering because a wage earner in the reserves has been called up. They interviewed National Guard reservist William Wessel, a Turner project superintendent in the company's Boston office, who is stationed in Kuwait. "60 Minutes" also interviewed his wife in suburban Boston. Wessel was identified as a Turner employee. The program talked about how Wessel's wife was struggling to make ends meet with her husband away, and that food subsidies were helping. This sent the clear message that the family's income had dropped precipitously.

Shocked viewers logged on to Turner's website with offers of support, some chastising the company. Employees sent around upset e-mails commenting on Turner's seemingly callous behavior. The real story, which Mrs. Wessel conveyed, but which didn't make it to the broadcast, was that Turner, like other responsible companies, makes up the difference between the reservist's pay and what the employee made previously. Turner contacted "60 Minutes" to see if they would verbally convey that fact to viewers, as they sometimes read letters or e-mails at the end of the show. The company CEO sent a letter. "60 Minutes" never acknowledged it.

With Turner, as with CDS, "60 Minutes" chose to create the "story" it wanted. But in the end they produced an interesting "story" that misled viewers. This is neither fair nor objective, and is inherently dangerous. Company reputations can be permanently damaged. And the behavior fans the angry belief that the press is arrogant and ignorant.

Why do reporters and editors behave this way? As an occasional reporter myself, my belief is that reporters mistakenly believe that any clarification or correction reflects negatively on their original story. To the contrary, it actually adds to the overall coverage.

Most of us don't get it right all the time. Ralph Waldo Emerson's often quoted comment, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," was actually, "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

It was foolish of "60 Minutes" to behave like this. For the CDS they should have graciously noted that the current chain of custody placed the responsibility to identify the donor's blood type with the collection agency and the recipient's blood type with the hospital. They could disagree, but should recognize that's how it currently works. In Turner's case, there is no excuse for not informing the public that the company ensures that called-up reservist employees collect the full of amount of their salaries. To refuse to do so is churlish.

The problem is that with television, there is no central "we wuz wronged!" location. Newspapers take seriously their responsibility to publish letters from those adding to, amending or complaining about an article. Perhaps the Washington-based Project for Excellence would like to examine what true objectivity really means.

(Merrie Spaeth, Director of Media Relations for President Reagan, is President of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator on public radio and television. )


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