• Alison Kartevold / GistSayn.com

Why News Credibility "Appears" Dead


ABC misrepresents video from Kentucky as battle footage in Syria, and secret recordings at CNN suggest biased news coverage is a mandate. Gist Say’n looks at shoddy journalism and sanctioned bias to explain why news media credibility “appears” dead.

Gist Say'n began in 2018 with episodes discussing the news media. Since then, examples of media bias and poor journalistic practices have been too innumerable to track. But two stories broke on Monday, October 14th, that showcase the self-inflicted wounds killing news media credibility.

The first example is ABC’s erroneous use of footage while reporting on the dire and volatile situation in Syria. ABC then fed suspicions of deception by failing to inform its viewers of the horrible misrepresentation properly.

Next there are the secret recordings of CNN conference calls that bolster claims that the company's leaders have created an unprofessional environment in the workplace.

In a two-part series, Gist Say'n examined what was happening beneath the surface of American media news operations in 2018. Together, they covered how the news you see is influenced by vertical integration, oligarchy ownership, groomed bias, activism presented as journalism, and social media.

To listen to those episodes or read the articles, go to GistSayn.com and click on the Articles and Episode Extras tab. These episodes are entitled Media Woes Navigated by a Scalded Frog, Parts 1 and 2

Before the podcast began, Americans already felt beleaguered by media bias. They still thought the media had an important role to play in our democracy, but they believed it was doing a poor job.

According to a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey released in January of 2018, on a trust scale of zero to 100, the American public gave the media a 37. This failing grade is due in part to media actions that disregard objectivity and obliterate the line between fact and opinion. The damage to public trust is a crippling consequence not easily overcome, especially when continued instances pick at the wounds.

ABC’s Slaughter in Syria/Kentucky

On the October 13th, Sunday edition of ABC’s World News Tonight, anchor Tom Llamas described a Turkish attack in northern Syria against Kurdish civilians. Beneath a banner that read “Slaughter in Syria” ran nighttime footage of explosions and tracer rounds from large-caliber fully automatic weapons.

As the dramatic video rolled, Llamas said, “This video, right here, appearing to show Turkey’s military bombing Kurd civilians in a Syrian border town.”

Later in the broadcast, ABC used the footage again as its foreign correspondent Ian Pannell reported from Syria. “This video, obtained by ABC News, appears to show the fury of the Turkish attack on the border town of Tal Abyad two nights ago,” Pannell said.

ABC producers liked this video so much that it was used not just during the Sunday version of World News Tonight, but again the next morning on Good Morning America.

Reusing overnight footage is a pretty common practice because the morning show's viewership is made up of different people. If you combine recent ratings of both shows, it’s likely that at least 10 million people saw this video depicted as a “Slaughter in Syria.”

The language used by Pannell indicates that ABC did not shoot the footage but instead acquired it from somewhere else. This is not uncommon either. Networks often pay trusted freelancers for video. If the story is big enough, they will occasionally pay random individuals who capture breaking news, even if it is just on their cell phones.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem is, in this case, the footage they showed was not of an attack on Kurds by the Turkish military in Syria. The video was not recorded in Syria, and it is not of any slaughter.

The video used on two of ABC’s major broadcasts matches explosion for explosion with that of a military weapons demonstration recorded at the Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Kentucky and published to YouTube in 2017 under the title, “Knob Creek night shoot 2017.”

The demonstration of military grade weapons is a biannual event open to ticket paying members of the public.

In the YouTube version of the video, you can actually see people at the bottom of the screen holding up their cell phones to record the event.

Somewhere along the line, those people were cropped out of the version used on ABC. The video’s color quality was also altered. These actions imply deception by someone.

The public learned of the improper use of this footage via social media. Wojciech Pawelczyk, describes himself as a video researcher and Trump supporter, and it “appears” he was the first to point out the similarity between the video that aired on ABC News and the video titled "Knob Creek night shoot 2017." Shortly before the video re-aired on GMA Monday morning, Pawelczyk tweeted, "Wow! ABC News is trying to pass gun range videos as combat footage from Syria."

Other websites with self-proclaimed conservative views where quick to follow, not just pointing out the misuse but speculating as to the company’s motives.

“Mainstream media wonders why conservatives call them “fake news.” It doesn’t take the President pointing it out anymore for us to see their dishonest ways" reads an article on noqreport.com. "ABC News is the latest propaganda machine attacking the President, this time trying to manipulate the public by using 2016 gun range footage as an example of Turkey’s military bombing civilians in eastern Syria.”

By noon, about 18 hours after first airing the footage, ABC issued a cookie-cutter correction for both programs via a tweet.

The statement says, “We’ve taken down video that aired on ‘World News Tonight Sunday’ and ‘Good Morning America’ this morning that appeared to be from the Syrian border immediately after questions were raised about its accuracy. ABC News regrets the error.”

By Monday evening, the Knob Creek Gun Range responded to the use of the footage on Facebook. "We’d like to thank ABC news for the free advertising on our Bi-Annual Machine Gun Shoot and Military Gun Show!!" reads the post. "Keep up the good work ABC News!!"

Later that day, the gun range also posted a picture stating that it was "marked safe from the Turkish invasion in Kentucky today."

From the New York Times to Fox News, other traditional media outlets acknowledged ABC’s mistake and its tweeted apology, and then they moved on. I have not seen a single conventional media outlet take ABC to task concerning how this could have happened.

TVNewser categorized the incident as ABC World News Tonight making a “rather significant boo-boo” that “unfortunately” carried over to Good Morning America the next day.

“We hear that the network is investigating what exactly happened.” TVNewser wrote later that day. “To its credit, ABC News acknowledged the error.”

Did it, though? Did it do enough? Yes, it issued a correction and admitted regret, but did it truly take responsibility? In my opinion, no, it did not. Thus far, ABC News has declined comment "on how the mix-up had happened."

Given the rocky relationship the news media has with people these days, the how is more important than the fact that it happened. Mistakes are made, but taking responsibility and reassuring the audience that steps will be made to prevent it from happening again are crucial to maintaining trust.

It is essential to understand that this was not a three-second image accidentally dropped into a pre-produced package filled with file footage. People responsible for the editorial content of these shows saw this video before it aired. I can say this with confidence because I have first-hand knowledge of how this process works. They highlighted this video. It was written to and specifically referenced by on-air personalities.

For this to happen, someone, somewhere, had to pass this video off as being battle footage from Syria. Were the producers and reporters duped by a foreign freelancer looking for a payday, an editor under the gun, or someone wishing to advance a narrative? The public doesn’t know, and ABC doesn’t seem inclined to enlighten it.

The use of words like “appearing to show” and “obtained by ABC news” indicates that somewhere along the line, someone felt the need to hedge against this video’s authenticity. The use of clarifying words like appears and alleged is a common way to cover your ass when speaking of something you personally have not or can not confirm. I have been using appears in quotes throughout this article to make that point, but these words can not excuse what is happening now.

Under the circumstances, issuing a correction on twitter alone is not enough. The people watching World News and GMA on TV are not necessarily the ones following them on Twitter.

Failing to acknowledge its mistake on-air during both broadcasts “appears” dishonest and opens the network and thus all traditional media up to further cause for distrust.

Critics on the right, like Newsbuster.org, wasted no time pointing out that ABC did address the mistake on either of its programs that followed.

“Later that evening, despite anchor David Muir dedicating five minutes and 28 seconds to the fighting in Syria, the network refused to acknowledge their misleading story and correct the record for their millions of viewers.”

Twitter users also savaged the correction. It has been heavily ratioed with blistering memes and comments.

"An apology is not in order here. An Apology implies they made a mistake," Tweeted Retired Col Rob Maness. "At least three layers of decisions were made putting the story together, the video was obviously doctored to remove evidence of its origins."

On Wednesday, Twitter showed that more than 18 thousand people were talking about the correction on the World News twitter feed. A number dwarfed by the millions who initially viewed it during the broadcast.

President Trump also called out ABC's use of the video during a press conference at the White House.

If ABC cares to try and repair the damage done to its credibility, it needs to address how this happened publicly. Otherwise, the number of people who distrust the media will continue to climb.

Secret CNN Recordings

The next example “appears” to show that Jeff Zucker uses CNN to advance an Anti-Trump Agenda.

Throughout the week of October 13th, the website run by self-described “guerilla journalist,” James O'Keefe, published three segments of what he advertised as an expose’ of CNN. The Project Veritas video uses undercover recordings it claims a “whistleblower” named Cary Poarch made. In the story, Poarch says he was a satellite uplink technician at CNN’s Washington Bureau.

He claims to have made undercover recordings that capture CNN employees acknowledging the network has an anti-Trump bias. According to Project Veritas, Poarch also secretly recorded daily conference calls led by CNN’s president Jeff Zucker.

On one of the recordings posted by Project Veritas, a voice identified as Zucker instructs his staff to ignore events being covered by rival organizations to focus solely on impeachment.

“I don’t care about the MSNBC event, OK? I don’t care about them. Let’s just stay very focused on impeachment,” a voice recording identified as Zucker says. “We shouldn’t just pretend, oh, this is going one way. And so all of these moves are toward impeachment.”

To me, that recording isn’t shocking, it's sad, but it's not surprising. CNN’s coverage has remained focused on Trump for years, and the feud between Zucker, who greenlit “The Apprentice” back when he worked for NBC, and Trump is well known. If you didn’t watch CNN or know that background, the fact that an Executive wants to focus on one particular story on any given day is relatively routine. To push that one subject over all others for years though does beg the question, why?

Also troubling is that the recordings seem to reinforce that orders to pursue everything anti-Trump are coming from the very top-down. What further frames Zucker's comments as blatant bias are the recordings that suggest that there are employees within the company who identify Zucker’s actions as motivated by bias. There even seem to be those who question the agenda to cover Trump all day, every day.

On one of these secret videos, a man identified as Nick Neville said, “Jeff Zucker, basically the president of CNN, has a personal vendetta against Trump… it’s not gonna be positive for Trump. [Zucker] hates him. He’s going to be negative.”

Identified as a CNN media coordinator, Neville expressed to colleagues that some CNN employees want to err on the side of “journalistic integrity” but with “big boss” Zucker “f----ing tell you what to do.” “You have to like… to a certain extent, you have to follow his verdict.”

Patrick Davis, Manager of Field Operations at CNN, is seen in part 3 saying, “…I hate seeing what we were and what we could be and what we’ve become. It’s just awful…I mean, we could be so much better than what we are…And the buck stops with him (Zucker).”

I feel bad for these guys. Neville and Davis “appear” to just be venting to colleagues, trying to understand the situation, and now suddenly, their careers are torpedoed. They may not get fired, but their prospects of upward mobility at CNN are sunk.

On the first official episode of Gist Say’n, I addressed that newsrooms were facing an onslaught of interference from distant parent companies. People who work in them were being forced to push the company line rather than gather the news.

“As with any business where you are not in control, you either get on board with the mandates, or you get pushed out. Then the new people hired are taught from the beginning what is expected of them,” I said back in 2018. “I know a lot of very good people who would like nothing more than to just do the work, report the outcome without picking a side, but they also want to keep their jobs. In television, keeping your job means having stories on the air, getting stories on the air means covering ones that the higher-ups want to see. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator, but what is good for the part is not always good for the whole.”

It "appears" CNN chose to double down while not directly commenting on the Project Veritas video. The company released a new ad stating "The impeachment inquiry, there's only one place for it all. CNN.com/Impeachment."

CNN may not want to talk about it, but the video has gotten lots of attentions on line. The story has been viewed more than 1.1 million times on YouTube. Reported analytics show it has 14.3 million views thus far.

As James O'Keefe continues to promise there is more to come on this story from his company, on friday an attorney representing President Trump and his campaign sent a letter to CNN executives referencing the contents of the Project Veritas video and claiming intentions to file legal action against it for misrepresentations to the public.

"Never in the history of this country has a President been the subject of such a sustained barrage of unfair, unfounded, unethical and unlawful attacks by so-called 'mainstream' news, as the current situation," said Charles Harder, in the letter.

In a responding statement, CNN said that "this is nothing more than a desperate PR stunt and doesn't merit a response.”

Perhaps the President doesn't have grounds for a lawsuit, but the American people deserve news outlets it can trust. The old ignore criticism and it will go away tact is wearing thin, apparently even with its own employees.

So Here’s The Gist

These continued examples of the media’s journalist failings erode trust. When mistakes are made, they must be owned up to, not sidestepped. Otherwise, people assume the worse. In this case, that means they believe ABC intentionally tried to deceive the public.

Outlets also need to take steps that help journalism regain its integrity by allowing employees to fill the role of reporters of events rather than activists of a company’s seen or unseen agenda. In the case of the CNN recordings, Jeff Zucker's silence is deafening.

If traditional media does not change course, the number of people who think the media is failing to meet the critical role it should play in democracy will continue to grow.

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