The Plane Truth

Ask any journalist how he or she balances the quest for scoops with the desire for accuracy and you'll probably get this answer: "It's more important to be right than first." But the game isn't always played that way in the modern world of electronic media. When disaster strikes, news consumers have been conditioned to expect immediate coverage of the carnage, and if a certain station fails to satisfy this desire, a percentage of viewers or listeners will switch channels, perhaps never to return, before the next blood droplet falls. The resulting pressure to air every tidbit of data as soon as possible opens the door to errors -- and on January 5 at Channel 9 and KOA, such a blunder strolled right in.

That afternoon, a Cessna 172K fell to earth in the vicinity of Highway 36 and Neva Road in Boulder County, killing its sole occupant, Charles Richards, 54. This sad event, which is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, was compounded by previous misfortunes that reportedly took place within the man's family: On the very day last November that a funeral was scheduled for Richards's recently deceased father, his 24-year-old son passed away. But initial accounts about the plane crash that appeared in a crawl along the bottom of TV screens tuned to Channel 9, as well as the version first heard on KOA, hinted at a tragedy of a far more extensive scale. The outlets identified the downed aircraft as a commuter jet that belonged to United Express. If such a vehicle was wrecked when filled to capacity, the casualty count could easily have run into the dozens.

Both stations corrected this slip-up in relatively short order. Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis says the graphic appeared just twice, and she adds that the piece about the incident that turned up on the station's 5 p.m. broadcast was correct. As for KOA, news director Jerry Bell points out that the muddled particulars passed along at the top of the signal's 5 p.m. newscast were amended before the update concluded -- a span of only three minutes or so, but enough time to do some damage. MSNBC, following Channel 9's lead, briefly identified the plane as part of the United Express fleet, prompting a trio of national news services to contact Denver International Airport seeking confirmation.

Had these agencies not bothered to do so, notes Amy Bourgeron, DIA's deputy manager of aviation, pandemonium might have ensued. "The potential hysteria that could have been created needlessly for someone waiting for a loved one or a friend on a United Express flight is a tremendous concern to us."

The gaffes were spawned by separate calls made to the stations by an individual or individuals who claimed to have witnessed the crash and who described the calamity in great, albeit false, detail. Channel 9's Dennis says she's not certain that personnel working in her shop on January 8 managed to get their caller's name, but KOA's Bell reveals that the man who phoned his station identified himself as "Mike Anderson" -- a name that seems suspicious in retrospect, since a Denver Broncos running back sports the same moniker. Too bad the guy didn't insist he was Terrell Davis; KOA workers might have caught on sooner.

As Bell tells it, newsroomers made a tape of the man's comments prior to calling Boulder County dispatch, which confirmed that there had indeed been a plane crash and that emergency personnel were racing to it. Granted, the dispatch staffer didn't identify the type of plane, because authorities had not yet reached the scene, but KOA was already receiving other calls from area residents who'd heard the impact, so the employees felt confident that the calamity was a hefty one. "We geared up for something much bigger than it turned out to be," Bell says. "I even ended up going up there, and I wasn't the only one. Everybody in town was mounting a large response."

Upon reaching the site, KOA reps knew instantly that the accident wasn't nearly the catastrophe they'd been led to expect, and they called back to the station to pass the word along. But by the time they did, news anchor Jim Reed had already aired the recording of "Anderson" describing a United Express craft, necessitating a hurried correction.

Unfortunately, says Boulder County spokesman James Burris, some listeners didn't catch the second notice: "When it went over KOA, the number at dispatch was ringing off the hook with people trying to get information, and we didn't have any way to say 'yes' or 'no' for a few minutes." Burris believes that "waiting ten or fifteen minutes to get a complete report from people on the scene would have prevented any misinformation from getting out over the air. But radio's an immediate medium, and people want news now."  

After they found out about the flub, KOA minions dialed the number left by the mysterious caller. But it wasn't in service, leading Bell to wonder if the station had been deliberately tweaked. "Either the guy was mentally off base or had a very vivid imagination," he says. Still, he's not overly critical of Reed or his colleagues: "It's not as if somebody called out of the blue and we threw it on the air. We did make an effort to confirm the crash before we ran the tape. I don't know what more you can do in a situation like that before you can get up there and see for yourself. If you had somebody tell you that they're there, and you know there's been a plane crash, you wouldn't have any reason to doubt it."

That's debatable. In the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings, for instance, numerous stories surfaced about folks racing to Clement Park and posing as students in order to be quoted by big-shot journos, and some of the alleged witnesses who told their tales on television during those first frenzied hours were later suspected of being nothing more than attention-starved poseurs. Such embarrassments prompted stations all over the country to take more care before giving just anyone a forum -- and in this case, Channel 9's caution prevented a bad situation from getting worse. "At least we didn't put the guy on the air," says news director Dennis. "That was one of the good decisions we made."

Mentioning United Express in its crawl wasn't nearly so wise, but Dennis characterizes it as a failure in communication instead of a conscious act. "We were in the midst of confirming the information from the call when a writer asked if 'this was confirmed' -- and 'this' was the operative word. What she thought was confirmed at that point and what actually was confirmed didn't match, but she didn't know that."

Dennis isn't clear about how the flub wound up on MSNBC, because no one at Channel 9 contacted the cable channel about the crash. But she's got her suspicions. "I think they monitor our signal on satellite. Normally, that's a good thing and a very efficient way of a local story becoming a national story. But not this time."

Sally Covington, director of marketing for DIA, can attest to that; in her words, she had the "dubious distinction" of being in charge of the media pager on January 5. She received a page that afternoon from the airport's communications center informing her about another incident, in which a disturbed Florida teenager flew a plane into the side of a building in Orlando. Afterward, she says, "I turned on Channel 9 to see what kind of coverage was happening, and the ticker said a United Express plane had crashed in Boulder." This seemed strange to her; she hadn't been paged by anyone about a Boulder wreck -- "not even the media, which was stunning." So she phoned the communications center to find out if the report was on the mark and discovered in short order that it was "a general-aviation flight, meaning that it was a private plane." By then, Channel 9 had paged, and Covington promptly called back: "I told them, 'Change your ticker. You've got the wrong information.'"

Covington never heard from KOA, but she was reached by representatives of the Associated Press, CNN and Reuters, all of whom had seen either the Channel 9 or MSNBC crawls. Pete Mattiace, bureau chief for the AP in Denver, says doing so is standard procedure in his office. "Our staff is pretty experienced about who to call with aviation accidents, because we're always chasing small plane crashes all over the state. Everyone's instincts here were to be conservative until we knew more, so we spent time calling the FAA, United, United Express and the airport, to make sure we knew what we had."

That's how DIA marketing director Covington hopes the press deals with future occurrences of this sort: "Especially after September 11, people are so concerned about flying that we don't want to unnecessarily frighten the traveling public because of the haste to be first." Adds DIA deputy manager Bourgeron, "We understand that the media relies on a lot of sources, and often they're alerted to something quickly because of a call-in. But it's important to confirm everything. Don't sacrifice facts for speed."

Neither KOA's Bell nor Channel 9's Dennis feel their people committed this sin. They're also convinced that the timing of the Boulder accident -- it occurred within an hour or so of the aforementioned Florida collision and another wipeout in California, temporarily piquing fears that the three crashes were terrorist-related -- was a non-issue as well. "It was just a weird one," Bell says.  

For Dennis, the fallout from the blunder serves as a reminder "to always look for systems and safeguards that protect against something like this. This is a business with human beings in it, and human beings can make mistakes. We need to set things up with double and triple checks so we can be as accurate as we possibly can be. Because in this business, accuracy is the cornerstone. It's your reputation, and if you lose it, nothing else matters."

A Slim victory: Last year, Liz Pipes of Colorado Springs gave the radio industry something serious to sweat over. Based on her complaint, the Federal Communications Commission levied a $7,000 fine against Colorado Springs's KKMG/ Magic FM for spinning a version of rapper Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" with the profanities electronically eliminated ("Bleep That," July 26, 2001). Some observers saw this move as a precursor to tighter FCC standards -- one that might make it risky for outlets to air practically any hip-hop tune not delivered by Will Smith.

On January 8, however, the FCC backed down. In a document canceling the fine, David Solomon, head of the commission's enforcement branch, determined that "the sexual references contained in the song's 'radio edit' version are not expressed in terms sufficiently explicit or graphic enough to be found patently offensive."

Solomon's decision essentially overruled FCC commissioners, and that didn't sit well with one of them, Michael Copps: In a separate statement, Copps declared that "the commissioners themselves, rather than the bureau, should be making the decision about whether to reverse the initial finding." This sets up a potential conflict between politically motivated commissioners eager to look like they're cleaning up the airwaves and more pragmatic bureaucrats like Solomon, who undoubtedly understood the Eminem case's possible repercussions. After all, how could the FCC justify fining Magic FM for playing "Slim Shady" without also socking it to the literally hundreds of radio stations across the U.S. that had done the same thing?

Nonetheless, Bobby Irwin, operations manager for Citadel Rocky Mountain, who oversees Magic FM, is "very happy about the ruling. Because we bleeped out the words that were thought to be objectionable, we had hoped this would be the finding." But Pipes, whose objections spurred the controversy, is significantly less pleased. "I thought it was unlikely they'd fine that station and not all the other ones," she says, "and now I'm afraid stations will see this as carte blanche to play whatever they want. But maybe they should have started at another point -- like making the artists who produce the songs adhere to the guidelines of decency."

Another crusade is born.

Following the Scripps: Earlier this month, the Boulder Daily Camera, part of the E.W. Scripps chain, announced that, due to the soft economy, it was laying off six people and eliminating an additional eleven positions, including four in editorial. But the paper didn't mention that the managing-editor position, one of the editorial jobs axed, will now fall to publisher Colleen Conant, who took over as editor during previous belt-cinching. Nor was it noted that the Camera is turning a profit while its Scripps-owned big sister, the Rocky Mountain News, lost in the neighborhood of $14 million in 2001 -- a detail that irritates some Camera employees who've long felt they've been made to suffer in order to prop up the Rocky.

Conant hasn't heard these specific gripes, but she isn't shocked to learn of their existence: "We newspaper people are grumblers by nature; we always think somebody else is getting a better deal. But this time, it's more myth than fact." Concurring is Tim Stautberg, Scripps's vice president of communications and investor relations, who insists that staffing decisions at the Camera are "totally unrelated" to losses at the News because "we vest our local publishers with the responsibility and the ability to run them as local businesses." Even so, Stautberg says there are "absolutely no plans to reduce the editorial staff at the Rocky Mountain News."

And the grumbling at the Camera goes on.

You know the name: In a January 13 column, Denver Post editor Glenn Guzzo recalled the hullabaloo over his paper's decision not to refer to the Broncos' stadium as Invesco Field at Mile High, declaring along the way that previous indictments of the policy were examples of "selective memory" or "disingenuous outrage" that now seem "hypocritical." The same can be said for Guzzo's we-were-right crowing: For instance, in true apples-and-oranges fashion, he likened the Post's policy to the media's dropping of corporate sponsor Tostitos from the name of the Fiesta Bowl, even though one's a building and the other's an event. Moreover, his claim that the Post would use the full "Invesco Field at Mile High" handle "only when it was demanded for clarity -- as in references to the naming-rights controversy" was contradicted by a January 10 brief about the dismissal of a lawsuit over the venue's tag. Not only did the mini-report appear two weeks after the ruling (and a day after the Rocky Mountain News published a larger article about it), but it failed to use the words "Invesco Field at Mile High" even though the name was the crux of the suit. Here's guessing the item contained a mere inch of copy because penning a longer piece without using the forbidden phrase would have been impossible.  

Meanwhile, the Post's Chuck Green continues to refine the art of writing lengthy columns filled with practically no new material whatsoever. Take January 11's "Arena Just as Vital as Jail Cells," in which he spent the majority of his time recounting a visit to the National Western Stock Show in the company of an eight-year-old child who'd never before "petted the soft wool on the back of a baby lamb or looked into the goofy grin of a young goat."

Much of Green's prose was undeniably icky even by his standards, with his final line -- "Some little boys need to find their future by looking into the smile on a clown's face" -- calling to mind three words: John Wayne Gacy. But a more jaw-dropping fact is that this was Green's second column about the same Stock Show visit -- which took place a year ago. In the January 15, 2001, submission "Through the Eyes of a Child," Green waxed rhapsodic about his preteen companion's thrill at "hugging a baby lamb" and "wrapping his arms around the neck of a goat."

So was Green too lazy to find another youngster to take to the Stock Show this year? Or did he try -- and then fail because his previous guest warned all his buddies to steer clear of "this old columnist guy" who would drag them to the rodeo, too, if they weren't careful? My money's on the latter.

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