When reports of Mark Twain's death turned out to be exaggerated, everybody laughed.
When reports of Daniel Pearl’s death turned out to be exaggerated, no one even smiled — at least no one in any of the newsrooms that had reported the death.
It happened last Sunday, and ABC was the first network to go with the story, after their correspondent in Pakistan, Jeffrey Kofman, told executives in New York that he had two sources confirming Pearl’s demise, one of which was the inspector general of the Karachi police department. The latter, said Kofman, was "100 percent sure" that a body found by the side of a road was that of missing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Seeing a Reuters news service report based on the ABC story, Fox News Channel also told its viewers that the body was Pearl’s.
It still wasn’t.
MSNBC took to the airwaves as well, although its language was not as certain as that of either ABC or Fox.
It was, however, as wrong.
This, then, is a tale of competitive pressures forcing otherwise rational human beings into behavior that turns out to be socially irresponsible. But I am not talking here about journalists — not yet, at least. I am talking about the Karachi police department, which was feeling tremendous pressures of its own. The cops’ inability to figure out what had happened to Pearl — where he was, who had kidnapped him, what would happen next — was an embarrassment to them, a humiliation; as a result they were so eager to solve the case that they improperly identified a body. Wishful thinking. Lousy police work.
As far as journalists are concerned, the question is: should they have been more careful before accepting the Karachi police report? They answer is: of course. In almost equal measures, the two groups share the blame for last weekend’s erroneous reports. The blame originates, however, with the Pakistani law enforcers, whom the journalists properly regarded as authoritative sources.
But even so, there is something I don’t understand about journalists. Never have, never will. Why do they think it’s so important to be first? Why do they have the mentality of sprinters rather than long-distance runners? Does ABC really believe its ratings will increase in the future if it reports an important story a minute and a half before NBC does? Does CNN really believe that its prestige will increase in the future if it beats Fox by the same amount of time?
It won’t happen. Neither is true. In fact, given the suspicions that so many people have about the media today, and given a natural prudence on the part of most viewers, especially in the case of an important story, their first reaction to a news bulletin will not be to swallow it whole, but to reach for the remote. They will switch to another channel. Does MSNBC say this happened? They want verification from Fox. Does Dan Rather say "CBS News has learned...?" They want to know whether Tom Brokaw says "NBC News has learned..."
The increased ratings and prestige, if they come at all, will come from accuracy, not haste.
But if journalists can be excused, to a degree, for their mistake of last Sunday, they can not so easily be forgiven the mistake they made two days earlier, when several networks reported on an e-mail they had received, supposedly from Pearl’s kidnappers, which also claimed Pearl had been killed.
I saw the e-mail. Without going into the kind of detail for which there is no room in this column, let me simply say that it did not seem authentic.
CNN put the e-mail on the air, quickly, almost in a sprint. Then, a day or so later, it reported that Pakistani police had arrested the three young men who were believed to have sent the e-mail as a hoax.
One can only hope that the Pearl family did not watch much TV last weekend, or that, if they did, their attention was on the defensive actions of the New England Patriots rather than the offensive actions of so many TV journalists.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .