Truth or Consequences

On Friday, September 14, The Detroit News ran a story about the local aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington. Among other things, the piece reported on harassment of Detroit-area Arab-Americans, including bomb scares. One sentence noted: "Henry Ford Community College officials on Wednesday told police that a student made a bomb threat after being denied financial aid."

Three days later, this item appeared in the paper's corrections column: "Henry Ford Community College has not received a bomb threat related to Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the United States. A student made a threat, according to a police report, but did not mention a bomb. A story on Page 10A on Friday misreported the nature of the threat, based on incorrect information supplied to the newspaper."

What's remarkable about this error is how unremarkable it is. Countless journalistic sins great and small have been committed since the moment that first hijacked jet hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Errors, half-truths, and overstatements were especially rampant in the first few days, when the alchemy of panic transformed soft, gauzy "facts" into semi-firm, glittering news.

Some of these reports were scary, suggesting attacks might be under way at other Washington sites, including the Old Executive Office Building, the White House, and the State Department.

Other ersatz news was downright uplifting, particularly the reports that police officers and/or firefighters trapped in the World Trade Center rubble had been rescued. Later, it turned out these stories were based on rumors or sources who lied, and the only rescuers pulled out alive had been trapped briefly as they worked through the ruins.

There's one major story that hangs in a strange limbo. On Thursday and Friday, ABC News reported that two groups of people with much the same profiles as Tuesday's suspected hijackers—trying to catch planes to California, carrying knives, bearing pilot credentials from the same Florida flight school—had been taken into custody at New York's JFK and LaGuardia airports. ABC reported that these people had originally been booked on Tuesday flights, and strongly suggested that they were trying to carry out additional hijackings.

The Associated Press and other news outlets later reported that all but one of the detained passengers were released, and the Justice Department said none of the passengers was carrying a knife—casting doubt on ABC's story. Other outlets wasted no time in leaping on the network. "ABC Coverage Comes Up Short: Theory Passed as Fact," trumpeted New York's Daily News on September 15. But Chris Isham, senior producer for ABC and head of its investigative unit, told me on September 18, "ABC stands by the story 100 percent." Since it was this same ABC unit that stood by the famous "blue dress" story a few years back, I'm going to wait for the evidence before concluding they got this one wrong.

Are you troubled by all these mistakes and uncertainties? Horrified? Concerned that there are more to come? If so, you'll soon have company. Once things have settled down, you can count on the media worriers—the think-tankers, the journalist-academics—to worry themselves sick all over again. On another high-stakes story, they'll rue, news outlets were just not careful enough.

The blame will be placed not so much on individual journalists, who, it will be empathetically observed, were doing their best under difficult circumstances. No, the real culprit is the competitive news environment that grew out of the 1990s, when around-the-clock cable and Internet channels multiplied, and journalists started caring more about being first than about being right.

The only problem with this view is, it's wrong—so wrong that it's worth trying to head it off right now. The critics of the new news world have it exactly backwards. The wild profusion of news outlets, and the ensuing competition for audience, isn't the reason newsies make mistakes on a story like this; it's the reason the public finds out about those mistakes so quickly, and sees them corrected with such dispatch.

War coverage has always been rife with error, and it always will be. Chaos doesn't lend itself to orderly journalism. In wartime, government tightens the lid on information, making confirmation difficult. Plus, journalists are tellers by nature—the more shocking the story, the more they want to get it out (for example, those high death counts in the early hours).

When the public is afraid, and lives are at stake, we will often go with stories that aren't quite baked. Sometimes it's irresponsible not to. Would anyone really have wanted ABC to suppress a new hijacking story that apparently was based on reporting, and that ABC still believes to be true? As long as such news stories come with appropriate caveats about the reliability of the information—"We're still confirming this"—during a crisis, they are better reported than not reported.

One of the salutary byproducts of the Information Age is that consumers have become better skeptics. Thanks to the dog-eat-dog news environment, they see stories knocked down every day. And when such stories are reported with more confidence than it turns out they deserved, news outlets pay a price, as other outlets roast them for their errors.

In war reporting, modern media people have their own brutal rules of engagement. Rule No. 1: Get it right or face the consequences.