In the fall of 2009, several inaccurate stories in the mainstream news media circulated widely among reputable organizations before they were retracted or corrected.
CNN Criticized for September 11 Reporting
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2009, CNN reported that the Coast Guard had fired on a suspicious vessel on the Potomac River that had breached a security zone near the Pentagon, close to where President Barack Obama was attending a September 11 anniversary ceremony. It was later revealed that CNN had based the report on radio transmissions from what turned out to be a routine training exercise, and that no shots had ever been fired.
On the morning of September 11, CNN reported on-air that a reporter had seen a suspicious boat on the Potomac, and accompanied the story with stock video of speeding Coast Guard boats. The network also showed pictures of the river above a banner that read: "Breaking News: Coast Guard fires 10 rounds at boat on Potomac River," a September 11 Associated Press (AP) story reported.
According to the September 11 AP story, CNN's Twitter feed read: "Coast Guard confronts boat as Obama visits Pentagon, police scanner reports say shots fired." Reuters and Fox news soon repeated the CNN reports. "Here is what we are learning. The U.S. Coast Guard ship of some type fired on what is considered a suspicious boat in the Potomac River," Fox News reported. "I can't recall a time or moment like this, on an American river, where the Coast Guard has opened fire," Fox news Anchor Bill Hemmer said, according the AP.
The Coast Guard held a news conference later in the day to explain that it was simply conducting a "routine exercise." According to a CNN transcript of the conference, Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier said the radio transmissions were relayed on an unencrypted but discreet Coast Guard channel. "Part of the protocol in their training is verbalization of gunfire and orders between the boats simulating what we would normally do if we were intercepting a suspect vessel," Currier said. "That 'Bang, bang' was verbalized on the radio, but I want to re-emphasize that no shots were fired, no weapons were trained, no ammunition was loaded. This was strictly on the radio, a verbalization."
In a statement released later that day, CNN said that it had contacted the Coast Guard public affairs office before airing the story, but the spokeswoman "said she was unaware of any activity taking place on the Potomac River."
"After hearing a further radio transmission about 10 rounds being expended, and after reviewing video of rapid movement by Coast Guard vessels as the President's motorcade crossed the Memorial Bridge, CNN reported the story. Simultaneously, during a second phone call, the Coast Guard spokeswoman informed us that its National Command Center and other command posts knew nothing about any activity in the area," the network's September 11 statement said. "Given the circumstances, it would have been irresponsible not to report on what we were hearing and seeing."
In a September 11 news conference, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs criticized CNN's reporting of the incident. "Before we report things like this, checking would be good," Gibbs said, according to a September 11 report on NBC News.
Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute was also critical of CNN's erroneous reporting. "The treatment of this story is a reminder of the hazards and responsibilities of live reporting," Tompkins wrote. "Media organizations, including CNN, worked heroically to bring us the world-changing events of 9/11/01. If that was a high point of coverage, this one wasn't."
Environmental Activists Stage Fake Chamber of Commerce Press Conference
An October 19 press conference at the National Press Club purportedly sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was revealed to be a hoax after about 20 minutes when Eric Wohlschlegel, the communications director for the real Chamber, entered the room and announced: "This is a fraudulent press activity, and a stunt."
The fake press conference and an accompanying fake press release misled several media organizations, including Reuters, CNBC, and Fox Business, that ran stories about the event before running retractions.
During the fake press conference, which included handouts on the Chamber's letterhead, a podium with the Chamber logo, and some individuals posing as journalists, Jacques Servin, an environmental activist posing as a Chamber of Commerce official and calling himself "Hingo Sembra," announced that the Chamber had changed its position and now supported a Senate climate change bill, an October 20 New York Times story reported. After Wohlschlegel arrived and confronted Servin, both men accused each other of being impostors and demanded to see each other's business cards. Video of the staged press conference is available on Web sites such as YouTube.com.
An October 19 story in The Washington Post identified an "activist-prankster group" called the Yes Men as the culprits behind the stunt. The group has carried out several other hoaxes in order to draw attention to what they consider slow progress fighting climate change.
According to an October 20 Los Angeles Times story, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has generally opposed most climate-change legislation, arguing that it is not sufficiently comprehensive and international, and that it imposes too high a regulatory burden on U.S. businesses.
As it became clear that the conference and the press release, which misspelled Chamber President Tim Donohue's name, were hoaxes, news organizations scrambled to correct the story. According to an October 19 post on the Web site Politico.com, a CNBC anchor interrupted herself mid-sentence to announce that CNBC had "breaking news" before cutting away to Hampton Pearson, a reporter who read from the fake press release. Upon realizing the story was a fake, Pearson later followed up with a second report saying that the "so-called bulletin" was an "absolute hoax."
An October 19 story on the Web site Talking Biz News reported that the wire service Reuters also published a story based on the false press release. "The U.S.Chamberof Commercesaid on Monday it will no longer oppose climate change legislation..." the initial Reuters story began, according to Talking Biz News. Reuters quickly updated its story to indicate that the event was a hoax, but not before it was picked up and posted on the Web sites of several news organizations, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
On October 26, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed suit against the Yes Men in Washington, D.C. Federal District Court. The suit, Chamber of Commerce v. Servin, No. 09-CV-02014-RWR, claims trademark and copyright infringement, and that the Yes Men staged the press conference for financial gain.
In response to the suit, the Yes Men issued a statement attributed to Andy Bichlbaum, an alias often used by Servin according to a October 27 New York Times story, calling the suit a "blow" to free speech. "It demonstrates in gory detail the full hypocrisy of the Chamber," the statement said. "The only freedom they care about is the economic freedom of large corporations to operate free of the hassles of science, reality and democracy."
Steven Law, general counsel for the Chamber, disagreed. "The defendants are not merry pranksters tweaking the establishment," Law said in the October 27 Times story. "Instead, they broke the law in order to further commercial interest in their books, movies and other merchandise."
Team Web Site, News Outlets Erroneously Report Death of Former NFL Player
When the Minnesota Vikings Web site erroneously reported on October 28 that the team's former safety Orlando Thomas had died, the news quickly circulated across the Internet, including posts on the Web sites for ESPN and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A few hours later, Thomas' agent informed the team that Thomas was still alive and battling Lou Gehrig's Disease, an October 28 AP story reported.
"Somebody put it on their MySpace page down in Crowley, La. [near Thomas's current home in Youngsville], and I guess the local media ran with it or something," said Thomas' agent, Mark Bartelstein, in an October 29 Star Tribune story. "You know how in today's world once rumors start, it spreads like wildfire. ... But it's totally false. He's sick, but he's good and he's fighting the battle he fights every day."
According to the Star Tribune story, the Vikings Web site reported Thomas' death after officials from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Thomas' alma mater, called and told team officials that he had died.
The Vikings issued an apology later on October 28, expressing their regret for the inaccurate report on their Web site. "We are thankful that this report was inaccurate and he and his family continue to be in our thoughts," the apology read.
The Star Tribune reported that it had already written a story on Thomas' death when it learned that former Vikings player Jake Reed had been "frantically tweeting" that Thomas wasn't dead. "Attention All ... Orlando Thomas is NOT dead!! Thanks for your concern! Please continue to pray for him and his family!" one Twitter post said. "This is NOT true! I just spoke to his family and they are VERY upset about this! He is fine!" said another, according to the Star Tribune, who then called Bartelstein to confirm that Thomas was still alive.
"It's every journalist's nightmare: reporting a death that has not actually occurred," wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Claire Noland on an October 29 post on Afterward, the blog of the Times obituary staff. "Lesson learned? Confirm the facts before running with the story. Even in the fast-paced world of a 24-hour news cycle, we need to getthe storyright before getting it first."
Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said that it wasn't surprising that the media relied on the Web site for the information about Thomas. "I cannot fault the media for relying initially on the Vikings; presumably they know what is happening with their players," Kirtley said on Twin Cities television stationKARE-11 on October 29. "What is classic about this is that the old fashioned reporting of picking up the phone and calling someone who might actually know seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle."
Vikings fan and blogger Dan Zinski was also critical of the reporting on Thomas' death. "Evidently, no one at Vikings.com, the Star-Trib [sic] or ESPN bothered calling anyone associated with Thomas to confirm the original story. Basically, they behaved like I and all the other lazy psuedo-journalists [sic] in the world would have," Zinski wrote on The Viking Age blog on October 29. "So, here's the question: If the mainstream media start acting just like bloggers, how are we to tell the difference between the real journalists and the fake?"
- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant