Unreliable Sources

Today was a day of reckoning for CNN’s venerable Reliable Sources. A few days ago their media reporter, Brian Stelter, stepped in it with a much-heralded scoop that proved to be untrue. Having done only the most rudimentary fact-checking imaginable (getting an anonymous source at NBC to vouch for the reliability of the pilot he was interviewing) he went on the air with a big development in the Brian Williams story that turned out to be about as true as BriWi’s claim of having been shot down.

Today David Zurawik, a perceptive follower of The Cable Game if there ever was one, placed blame where it clearly belonged–an utter failure to verify the story before rushing it onto the air. The Baltimore Sun television critic said on Media Buzz:

I think CNN should have been more careful, Howie, in this sense. When Stars and Stripes reported this story, they had a wall of people who were there talking about it. So all of a sudden on Wednesday or Thursday, the one guy comes out and is going to contradict everything. You really have to vet that. If this is the discipline of verification, they did almost none of that. And, as you reported, the next day he recanted totally, said he didn’t want to talk about it any more, and disappeared. And CNN had to go on–they called it a revision. They said they were revising. It was a retraction.

So how did Brian Stelter address this today on Reliable Sources? It got one mention, a throwaway reference in the middle of a discussion with three guests:

Earlier this week I interviewed a pilot who said he was the one that had Brian Williams on board his aircraft. Turned out he did not, so I know exactly what you’re talking about there and we have to be careful I think in reporting or talking about this story.

And that was it. He leaves out the key fact that the pilot insisted Williams’ helicopter took small arms fire–a claim immediately seized upon by Williams apologists and used as a hook for the “fog of memory” excuse. It was a huge story–until it fell apart, that is. Stelter’s two sentences amount to a ridiculously lame acknowledgment of what was a major screw-up. The irony was rich as he ended the segment with a plug for the next topic: “Does NBC have a trust problem?”

Brian gave no explanation for how he could go on CNN with an unvetted story and do so for most of an entire day. No clarification on why an anonymous NBC source is considered fact-checking at CNN. And for all the talk of Brian Williams’ apology, there certainly wasn’t one from Brian Stelter.

We know Mr. Stelter hasn’t exactly been eager to focus a critical lens on media malfeasance close to home (Carol Costello, anyone?), and now we see he’s willing to pretty much give himself a pass too.

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