WASHINGTON – Nothing is worse in journalism than botching a story. Misspelling a name. Blowing a fact. Maybe muddling a story altogether based on inaccurate information or bad sources.
Anyone who’s been in this game for any period of time has done all of the above.
But Wednesday, the media — myself included — committed the cardinal sin of journalism: We killed someone before she was dead.
The victim was Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio.
I knew the congresswoman well. As an Ohio native, I’d covered her for years, and interviewed her numerous times. In fact, just last month she came up to me at a social function and gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. That’s just the way she was.
As you’ve all heard by now, FOX News, CNN, The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, The Hill newspaper and many others erroneously reported she had died Wednesday afternoon – hours before she was actually declared dead Wednesday evening. I’m the one to blame at FOX News for the premature report.
Jones suffered a brain aneurysm that triggered a hemorrhage while she was driving in Cleveland Tuesday night. Doctors then placed her on life support.
A variety of sources told me Wednesday morning that Tubbs Jones “might not make it” and that she never regained consciousness. At one point in late morning, sources told me a decision to remove Tubbs Jones from life support was imminent and they were preparing to harvest her organs.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Tubbs Jones passed away at 12:19 pm. Other news organizations followed suit with less specificity. I held off. For quite a while. A source of mine in Ohio with exhaustive ties to the state’s political apparatus told me around 1 p.m. that she died.
But I waited. I figured we’d get a definitive statement from the hospital soon.
Just before 2 p.m. Wednesday, CNN cited other media reports that the congresswoman had passed. Around that time, I spoke on the phone with our Washington Bureau’s editorial coordinator. I told her I couldn’t stand it up. And I warned her we should tread lightly with this. Death is something not to be reported on lightly.
I was schooled in this phenomenon of death and the news business early in my career. At age 18, I worked for a small radio station in Ohio. Each weekend morning, I’d leave my college dorm around 4 a.m. for an early news shift. But my first stops were the fire and police departments to look over the overnight reports.
One morning, there was a fatal accident. One person died. One lived. As always, I dutifully jotted down the information from the report. And a few hours later, I announced to all of Ohio who died and who survived this crash.
But I was wrong. See, the police transposed the names of the victim and the survivor on the report. So you can only imagine the feeling in my stomach when the survivor’s family called to tell me I had it wrong.
But I’d done due journalistic diligence. My saving grace? I attributed the report of the death to someone. An all important line that said, “Police say so-and-so died last night in a wreck…” And that’s all journalism is: not reporting your own conclusions, but what others are saying.
Then there was the Bob Hope incident.
In 1998, The Associated Press mistakenly published a pre-written obituary of the legendary entertainer. Every news organization worth its salt prepares obituaries of celebrities and key figures. They sometimes hold them for years.
When I worked at NPR, they always prepared their obituaries on old, analog, reel-to-reel tapes. If a big name fell ill, they would always bring up the obituary from the tape library and place it on the chalk ledge of a blackboard in the newsroom.
Your malady made no difference. Throat cancer. Plane crash. You name it. The chalk ledge commanded mystical medicinal powers over all afflictions. If they placed your obit on the chalk ledge, you would survive. The late Russian leader Boris Yeltsin sat up there for years. County music star George Jones was in an awful traffic accident and pulled through. Former Czech President Vaclav Havel’s still kicking. And Yankee great Joe DiMaggio practically rose from the dead.
So guess whose obit perched there when the late Rep. Bob Sump, R-Ariz., sauntered onto the House floor one afternoon and declared that the entertainer Bob Hope had just passed away? An outpouring of emotion swelled the House floor as lawmakers eulogized Hope and talked about his career and longtime service to the USO.
Only, it wasn’t true. The Associated Press inadvertently published the Hope obit on its Web site. An aide to then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, D-Texas, spied it and gave it to his boss. And Armey then asked Stump to announce Hope’s passing on the House floor.
Within the hour, Hope’s daughter denied the report and informed journalists her father had just eaten breakfast.
Hope lived another five years, dying in 2003.
So I was cautious with Tubbs Jones. But I thought I had it nailed down when I received notice from a member of the Ohio congressional delegation (who didn’t want to be named) saying the Tubbs Jones camp had just phoned to say the congresswoman had died.
That’s when I went with the story.
But from Bob Hope, we now know that members of Congress aren’t the best sources for issuing death certificates.
Twenty minutes later, Dr. Gus Kious of the Huron Road Hospital announced that Tubbs Jones was alive in critical condition.
How could this happen? Someone’s either dead or alive. And I declared Stephanie Tubbs Jones dead some four hours before she passed on.
It’s interesting to scan the blogs and unearth criticisms from people excoriating the press for getting this story wrong. One person asked why we just didn’t call Tubbs Jones office. Another asked how hard can it be to find out if someone is living or dead.
I estimate I made more than 90 phone calls throughout the day trying to determine the condition of Tubbs Jones. And I sent more than 130 e-mails.
But sketchy information was around all day. I trusted the sources that told me Tubbs Jones probably wasn’t going to make it. Later that morning, a senior House leadership staffer suggested to me that the congresswoman’s condition wasn’t that bad. And the hospital and Tubbs Jones’ office said the lawmaker’s condition was “stable.”
We later learned some people close to the family may have jumped the gun reporting the congresswoman was about to be removed from life support. Congressional leadership offices even sent out messages announcing she was dead.
As journalists, that’s why we rely so much on sources. Politics is so choreographed that reporters have to comb through our sources, often anonymous ones, to dig to the bottom.
Despite my diligence, I got it wrong.
And Stephanie Tubbs Jones, or anyone, deserves better. In life. And death.
Chad Pergram is FOX News' senior producer for the House of Representatives. He’s the recipient of an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for Excellence in Public Policy Broadcast Reporting ... and he usually gets it right.