Editor's Note: Due to a production error, the print version of this column contains a few typos. This online version is correct.
When CNN executive Eason Jordan resigned under pressure in February, he was quickly dubbed a victim of the "blogosphere," the online echo chamber where one unguarded comment can turn into a firing offense. But a closer look suggests there were other forces at work, and news organizations would be wise to heed them.
A 23-year veteran of CNN, Jordan quit as the network's chief news executive less than two weeks after participating in a panel discussion at an economic forum in Switzerland. Precisely what he said there isn't known because the session was supposedly off the record, but according to witnesses, Jordan asserted that the U.S. military had targeted and killed a dozen journalists in Iraq. Questioned at the time, he backpedaled but apparently did not retract the statement.
After a businessman in the audience posted Jordan's comments on the forum's blog, the story became blogger fodder on hundreds of sites, and CNN was inundated with complaints. In response, the network put out a brief statement saying Jordan didn't believe the military intended to kill journalists and that his remarks were taken out of context. "Mr. Jordan simply pointed out the facts," CNN said, "that the U.S. military on occasion has killed people who turned out to be journalists."
Maybe the powers that be at CNN thought that would be the end of it. But the dismissive tone of the statement and its lack of specifics may only have made things worse. It's hard to claim a comment was taken out of context when you don't provide any proof. While there was no public transcript of the session, forum organizers had the whole thing on videotape; CNN never bothered to call for its release.
Jordan himself said almost nothing in his own defense. He gave one interview, to the Washington Post, in which he noted, "Obviously I wasn't as clear as I should have been on that panel." No kidding.
Convenient as it may be to blame the newfangled phenomenon of blogs for Jordan's demise, at least some of the fault belongs to a more old-fashioned problem--network arrogance, the same disease that afflicted CBS News in the case of the "60 Minutes" National Guard story. Instead of admitting the obvious flaws in that story and promising to investigate further, CBS circled the wagons and stood by it for almost two weeks. In both cases, a quick apology instead of a lame defense might have led to a very different outcome. A little humility could have minimized the damage to the news divisions' reputations and to the individuals who wound up losing their jobs, unfairly or not.
The two incidents were strikingly similar in this respect: People who raised fundamental questions about the facts at issue were denied clear answers by major news organizations. Journalists who demand transparency and accountability from everyone they cover should have no trouble seeing what's wrong with this picture.
Sure, some of the questions aimed at Jordan--maybe even most--were politically motivated. Conservatives slammed him, and by extension CNN, for tarnishing the name of the U.S. military. But journalist Jeff Jarvis told CNN's own "Reliable Sources" program that all he and his fellow bloggers wanted was a straight answer. "The problem here is that by just asking for the truth, knocking at the doors of the news temple and saying, 'Tell us what's going on,' we're being portrayed as a lynch mob," he said. "We're not. We're citizens wanting to know the truth."
Listening to the public is not a well-developed skill in many newsrooms, of course, but that doesn't mean it can't be learned. Some stations have even managed to make it part of their culture. At WFAA in Dallas, General Manager Kathy Clements answers questions once a week on the station's Web site. Anyone can submit a question by clicking a button on the homepage labeled "Let me speak to the manager." The practice dates back to the 1960s, when the boss used to answer viewers' questions on the air after the late Sunday news.
WCNC in Charlotte, North Carolina, requires every complaint to be routed to a manager for a response. "Even the crazies are your customers," says former Executive News Director Keith Connors. "If people believe you care about them, you can turn people who hate you into fans."
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, KKTV airs a weekly segment during the morning show, "Talkback Tuesday," putting viewer comments on the air live. News Director Nick Matesi also answers complaints personally and promptly. "Once
people understand why you do what you do," he says, "you can reestablish some of that credibility that's been eroded."
None of this means these stations are pandering to viewers or giving up control over what goes on the air. It means they're willing to listen and to explain their journalism. Those aren't radical ideas, just unusual ones. If they catch on, maybe the next tempest in the blogosphere won't cost another respected journalist his job.