Saturday, March 6, 2010

Case Study: KMOX Shows How Not to Report the News

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, but some recent developments make it especially relevant. I'd like to use a example from KMOX to illustrate what I think is irresponsible journalism and a lesson in how the local tea party is willing to manipulate the local media. This story, in my mind, provides some interesting context for the controversy surrounding KMOX's coverage of St. Louis County Executive Charlies Dooley.

The example revolves around the case of Kenneth Gladney, a case I've discussed in detail on this blog. In addition to suggesting that the case involved a massive conspiracy which includes everyone from President Obama to Health Care for America Now director Magarida Jorge to the local dogcatcher, the local tea party is also convinced that the St. Louis County government delayed charges in the case due to partisan interference.

Now, anyone who follows this blog will know that the tea party alleging some massive Democrat/SEIU conspiracy is hardly a newsworthy event. However, if you'd like to be charitable, I suppose you could say that given that this particular case was highly charged and revolved around an important political issue, it was worthy of being covered by the local news in one of your typical "tea party outraged about X" stories. And if KMOX's Kevin Killeen had simply written one story about the issue, I wouldn't have thought much about it.

But Killeen didn't write just one story. He wrote four stories. In fact, he basically wrote the same story over and over again spaced apart by a few days. And in doing so, he consistently used the following formula for this stories: "Suggestion of conspriacy by County Counselor. County Counselor denies charge."

To get a little more specific, here are the stories.

The first, from November 18, was titled "Still No Charges in Town Hall Protestor Assault" and ended with County Counselor Patricia Reddington saying the incidence "hasn't been swept under a rug."

Six days later, Killeen then wrote a story titled "Victims family questions delay in town hall assault case." That story quoted Gladney's brother Keith saying "I think someone's either slow dragging or they're buying time for some reason...They're giving him enough time for... basically for this whole case that slipped through the cracks" and again ends with Reddington's same quote.

Six days after that, after already reporting on the charges filed and Gladney's reaction, Killeen was back again with, "Tea Party boiling-mad about charges filed in beating case." In this story, Killeen dives full bore into the conspiracy theories, quoting Republican politician/tea partier John Loudon as saying the following: "I think these Service Employees Union people went in there and committed the assault, because they felt that the system, the partisan political system, would protect them...And I think the partisan political system appears to be protecting them." Once again, the only "balance" of the story is Reddington's quote about the case not being swept under a rug.

So here we have a reporter reporting the exact same story three times, separated by exactly six days each time. It doesn't take a psychology degree to know that if you play a story on the news enough times that roughly follows the format "Person A accused of malfeasance. Person A denies. Person A accused of malfeasance. Person A denies. Person A accused of malfeasance. Person A denies," some listeners will eventually start to believe that Person A was up to something sketchy even if no evidence was ever provided. So Killeen's reporting appeared to be deliberately designed to either pressure the county counselor or to make the county government look bad. Furthermore, every one of the four stories Killeen produced featured a picture of Kenneth Gladney in a wheelchair, a prop so ridiculous (since Gladney was seen walking around after the original fight) that it earned Gladney an Ass Clown of the Week award from Riverfront Times readers.

So what is the moral of this story? In my opinion, it's hardly news when people make wild accusations they stand to gain from, especially when those accusations are not supported by any evidence. But more importantly, when a supposedly unbiased reporter brings up the same accusations over and over again with no supporting evidence, that raises some serious red flags about the objectivity of the reporting. Also worth noting: I sent Killeen an email raising questions about the tea party story, and he never bothered to correct any of his reporting or to respond.

Given this background, I find the current controversy about KMOX' coverage of Charlie Dooley extremely interesting. First, on Feb. 19, the same Kevin Killeen reported that "unnamed sources" said that there was a federal investigation of people "with connections to the County Executive's Office" and that the charges went " all the way up the elevator". The next day, Killeen wrote another story claiming that Dooley had "ducked" questions about the probe. Killeen provided no new evidence beyond his previous "unnamed sources." After Dooley responded forcefully at a County Council meeting, Killeen again filed a new story relying entirely on "a growing number of independent sources." Finally, the FBI explicitly stated that Dooley was not being investigated. Killeen responded by stated that he stood by his original stories, that he never said explicitly that Dooley was the target of the investigation, and that he still heard from "multiple sources" that there's an investigation of whether campaign money influenced the selection of vendors.

As should be obvious, these "unnamed sources" have no accountability. They literally can say whatever they want and if it turns out to be false they will not suffer any consequences. This is the same type of strategy the Bush administration used to great effect to influence public opinion about Iraq.

A more important question is would there be any consequences for Killeen if it turns out there's not an investigation? Given that he's already shown a propensity to go after the county government with no supporting evidence, could he just blame any bad information on his sources? My guess is that now that Dooley responded forcefully and the FBI commented, there's a lot riding on what we find out about any potential investigations. It will be very interesting to see how things pan out.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    I just learned about your blog in the 3/4/10 RFT--thanks so much for what you're doing. I stay tuned from now on....
    Heather Bell