JON STEWART SHOULD HANDLE THIS ONE

Everyone in the media knows about the Friday afternoon “news dump.” It’s how the government, industry, and celebrities distribute stories that they hope will receive little public attention. These dumps happen on Friday afternoons because the items wind up in Saturday morning newspapers (and on websites) that draw far fewer readers than weekdays or Sundays.

The problem is that when a dump retracts a story that made earlier headlines, the injustices wrought by the original and incorrect report can persist. The Justice Department is the latest victim of that phenomenon. But the episode symbolizes a deeper problem: the power of talking heads, even when they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Perhaps you recall the late September headlines about the $16 muffins that showed up in an internal audit of Justice Department expenses associated with a judicial conference. The story was everywhere — network newscasts and front pages of newspapers. The NY Post was typical: “Feds $16 Muffin Hard to Swallow.” John Stossel used the muffins to launch one of his “government is too big” rants. FOX News brought out its stable of commentators to blast the feds. ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN highlighted their broadcasts with the revelation. Congressional Democrats and Republicans united in a rare act of bipartisan outrage.

Except it wasn’t true.

Within a day of the original story, Hilton Hotels disputed the inspector general’s conclusion, but most of the media ignored it. In fact, even after facts contradicting what had been dubbed “Muffin-gate” began to emerge, Bill O’Reilly continued to claim credit for “breaking the story” and to exploit it as an example of government waste. He was in rare form during his September 28 appearance on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

Which takes us to last Friday afternoon’s news dump. In the October 29, 2011 Saturday edition of the Times, an article appeared on page A11:

“Report of Justice Dept.’s $16 Muffin Greatly Exaggerated.”

It noted that the office of the Justice Department inspector general “retracted its much publicized claim that the agency had spent $16 per breakfast muffin at a conference. And it expressed regret for the ‘significant negative publicity’ for the department and the hotel that hosted the meeting….”

It turns out — as Hilton had first argued on September 22 — that the continental breakfast also included pastries, fruit, coffee, juice, taxes, a gratuity for the servers, and — oh yes — free use “of a ballroom and a dozen meeting rooms during the five-day conference.” Not a bad deal for a decent Washington, DC hotel.

This leads me to three points:

First, everyone should read Saturday newspapers more carefully.

Second, don’t rely on anyone to give you all of the facts, especially the talking heads on TV.

Third, Jon – the ball is in your court.

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