MediaWatch: March 1993

Vol. Seven No. 3

Waited Months to Correct "Inappropriate" Reporting

NBC: How Sorry Are They?

Twice in February, NBC became the target of TV comedians after being forced to admit fabricating parts of earlier stories. In both cases, NBC characterized its reporting as "inappropriate" and said that it regretted the incidents. But NBC didn't bother telling viewers about its errors until threatened by a lawsuit and public ridicule.

When challenged over the accuracy of a test crash in the now famous Dateline NBC story on pickup trucks, NBC News President Michael Gartner avoided any admission of guilt: "We remain convinced that taken in its entirety and in its detail, the segment...was fair and accurate." Gartner insisted the "sparking" devices NBC hooked to the GM truck were to "simulate sparks which would occur in a collision," so weren't misleading.

The next day, at the conclusion of the February 9 Dateline NBC, the story changed. Jane Pauley conceded "that what we characterized in the November Dateline segment as an unscientific demonstration was inappropriate and does not support the position that GM CK trucks are defective. Specifically, NBC's contractor did put incendiary devices under the trucks to insure that there would be a fire if gasoline were released from the truck's gas tank." Added co-anchor Stone Phillips: "We deeply regret that we included the inappropriate demonstration in our Dateline report. We apologize to our viewers and to General Motors." This concession occurred 84 days after the November 17 segment aired, and a day after GM held a news conference to show NBC's fabrications and to announce a lawsuit against NBC.

Still, some journalistic icons praised NBC. On the Feb. 14 Meet the Press, Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward explained "How many people in news organizations when they make a mistake...never come out with that. They try to fudge and get defensive, and so [NBC] faced the fact that they made a mistake."

Fifteen days after the GM correction, on NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw conceded that in a January 4 story on how timber clear- cutting in Idaho was killing fish "we inadvertently used footage of dead fish from another forest further south" and showed fish that appeared to be dead, "in fact, they were not. They had been stunned." This correction took 50 days and came the same day Sen. Larry Craig took to the Senate floor to denounce NBC's distortion.

How sorry is NBC? On March 2, the same day Gartner resigned over the GM story, the network announced it was hiring Michael Moore, the producer-star of the movie Roger & Me, which contained fabrications about GM.