On Saturday, all three news networks and The New York Times killed Giffords. So did NPR. As a matter a fact, it was NPR who seems to have led the pack. FoxNews cited NPR when it announced that Giffords had died. CNN and MSNBC hesitated, but ten or fifteen minutes later they too announced that Giffords was dead. Once word got out that Giffords was still breathing, though in critical condition, FoxNews, to its credit, explained that it had confirmed the NPR reports with three other reliable sources, in varying branches of the government, but none of the sources were named. Within an hour, we knew that NPR and all the "confirmations" were wrong.
One of my proudest moments while running CNN was that on the day President Reagan was shot, we didn't kill Jim Brady. Brady was the Reagan spokesman who was shot on the same occasion that the President was wounded. He, too, went to the hospital with a bullet in his head, and CBS, ABC and NBC announced his death. CNN didn't, but I take no credit for that, the kudos go to Bernie Shaw.
The reports that Brady had died came from an aide to Senator Howard Baker, and because Howard Baker's daughter, Cissy, got the first call. She got the word to Shaw's producer, and he immediately told Bernie, but Bernie cited only a top level Congressional source with the story and said, "We are not sure, we have no official confirmation." ABC, CBS and NBC all announce Brady's death on the air. Dan Rather asked his audience to observe a moment of silence to honor the departed press secretary, but Bernie continues, "This is only one report, it is a confusing time, the man, in fact, may still be alive--" And despite all the pressure from CNN producers and CNN executives, including me, Bernie won't confirm Brady's death.
Then, just as in the Giffords case, reports from the hospital seemed to indicate that Brady is still alive. All of the other three networks slowly back away from the story, we don't have to , because Bernie was strong enough to resist all the pressure, and was willing to be beaten on the story because the story had not been confirmed to his satisfaction. That takes a lot of journalist courage, and Bernie had plenty of that.
Later that night, Bernie and his producer, Sandy Kenyon, left the studio and Sandy asked Bernie why, when everyone else was telling it, he, Bernie, refused to go along. Bernie said, and this is the best advice I can give to any journalist, it was because "the source wasn't in the room, he didn't see Brady die."
None of the sources on Giffords "death" were "in the room" either. Maybe the news networks will remember to get "in the room" reports before they report a story next time, but I doubt it. There aren't that many Bernie Shaws left in the news business.
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