I really wish I could put this story out of my mind, but unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, I can't. I just can't. I still find myself shaking my head on occasion at the sheer impossible absurdity of it, suddenly stopping whatever it is I'm doing to say out loud to nobody, "How in the hell could they have let that happen?" I sometimes wonder if I'm actually more incensed than KTVU News Director Lee Rosenthal is that his news department somehow -- for reasons no one with a brain let alone a working knowledge of a broadcast newsroom will ever fully comprehend -- allowed four obviously phony, racially insulting Asian pun names to go out over the air last Friday.
Word has it Rosenthal's a good guy, but dear God, this mistake is so painfully embarrassing -- it's so far beyond anything in recent memory in terms of the systemic breakdown it exposed -- that I'm not sure he shouldn't do the honorable thing and throw himself on a nearby sword just as a matter of principle. I'm the most cynical guy in the world when it comes to an opinion of local news. With a few notable exceptions, I think it's garbage, an often ineptly executed long con run by media company hustlers desperate for ratings dollars and shilled by crappy consultants who get paid a fortune to make every station in America look exactly alike. I long ago gave up expecting local news to be smart or to create anything resembling journalism. But this -- this gargantuan fuck-up confounds even my lowly expectations.
To truly appreciate just how catastrophic the failure was on KTVU's part last Friday, you have to understand how a newsroom works, how many hands a piece of information goes through before it makes it to air. This wasn't something that was simply typed by one person into a teleprompter and then it came out of the mouth of a helmet-haired talking head in the studio. Particularly when it's new and "exclusive" information on a very big story, an item is traditionally handled through the news-desk, which relays it to an executive producer, who gives it a once-over either alone or in conjunction with other managers, who then relay it to producers, who then give it to writers, who then send it to graphics or input the chyron directly and put the story in script form, which then finally goes to the aforementioned helmet-haired talking head (who reads it cold only if he or she is lazy, an idiot, or, God forbid, both). Occasionally something will come in directly to a producer or the station will skip over the writer step because it'll be too damn cheap to pay for writers, but overall, this is how the flow of information works. In other words, there are a half-dozen or so people checking, double-checking, and generally laying eyeballs on the thing, especially at a station in the #6 market in the country.
Even taking into consideration the substantial budget cuts most local stations have suffered through over the past few years, with one person now doing the job of three, there still should be a small gauntlet of trained professionals that a story -- even a breaking story -- has to run before making air.
But somehow, at KTVU last Friday afternoon, nobody noticed that the names of the supposed Asiana pilots they were about to put on the air were "Captain Sum Ting Wong," "We Tu Lo," "Ho Lee Fuk," and "Bang Ding Ow." Nobody noticed this. Apparently, nobody at KTVU dayside is the kind of cynical wise-ass who would've taken one look at those names and instantly said, "Are you fucking kidding me? What's the matter with you people?" (For the record, given that they're usually run by media companies that pride themselves on a needlessly byzantine series of regulations and a corporate culture that preaches staff docility, most local stations don't tolerate this type of employee anymore; they'd rather have you smile and agree that the shit you've just been handed on a plate is, in fact, filet mignon, rather than be enough of a pain-in-the-ass to occasionally break everyone else's toxic tunnel vision.)
Compounding the inexplicable incident is KTVU's reaction to it in the hours and days since. I get that a public disaster that pulls back every inch of the veneer of professionalism you rely on to be taken seriously, revealing the rank stupidity and incompetence underneath, is a tough thing to come back from. What KTVU did -- and didn't do -- goes so far beyond the realm of the traditional mea culpa that any Act of Contrition or simple acceptance of responsibility seems almost laughable. How do you admit that you screwed up that royally and still somehow be a station that people trust to bring them something resembling news? Well, you start by offering a full-throated apology, which KTVU did and didn't do: It apologized quickly for the mistake and did its best to own it, but so far it's come up short when it comes to explaining how the mistake happened in the first place -- and sorry, but this time around it's going to take more than a couple of penitent buzzwords, a few promises that action will be taken to prevent future cock-ups of this magnitude, and a lot of nebulous dancing around the details to make KTVU anything more than a national and local laughingstock.
I realize that Asiana is now looking to sue the station for its seemingly impossible oversight, but news flash: being sued is always a threat in journalism. It's the reason, in fact, why almost every retraction you've ever heard sounds like utter horseshit. It sounds that way because it is. The average retraction or "clarification" of a mistake made on-air is a carefully worded and heavily lawyered piece of theater designed to acknowledge a screw-up while not actually admitting to a screw-up. It's saying that you regret the error while not taking responsibility for that error. Again, it's nonsense. It's done entirely for the sake of saving the station's ass, with a commitment to the audience barely even a consideration.
The NTSB has admitted that one of its summer interns mistakenly confirmed the ridiculous names of the pilots that KTVU had to someone at the station when he or she called it in. That intern has since been fired. But here's the thing: KTVU had to have those names in the first place to confirm them; they had to come from somewhere. So -- where? Who at KTVU was given those names, looked at them and, instead of immediately laughing out loud and throwing them in the garbage, decided they looked legit enough to merit calling them in to the feds to get a confirmation? Putting the blame off on the NTSB is a dodge because in reality the whole thing never should've gotten to the point of confirmation. I genuinely don't know how or where the names came from, who it was who tried and was ultimately successful in pranking the hell out of KTVU's entire dayside staff, but there's a disclaimer on the station's Twitter account which warns that any tweet fired off at KTVU essentially becomes the media property of the station and can be used on-air. Is it possible that some official-sounding Twitter account "leaked" the supposed names of the pilots in the Asiana crash via social media and KTVU's people were guilty of what just about everybody is these days: believing any fucking thing they see on the internet? Who knows? We don't know because KTVU won't tell us where it got the names. All we can do is guess.
Lee Rosenthal has already gone to the Asian-American Journalists Association and basically prostrated himself in submission at its feet, saying that there's obviously no excuse for what happened on Friday -- an understatement on par with saying that Snoop Dogg likes to occasionally get high. The station has also tried to explain how it made a mistake that even to the layman seems incomprehensible in a room full of supposed professionals, to say nothing of people who simply have the ability to see what's directly in front of them. But it's really not enough. Not by a long shot. KTVU should walk the audience step-by-step through the procedure that takes a breaking story from item to air. As they say, sunshine is the best disinfectant, so let the people KTVU serves see the internal workings of the station so that they might be able to understand how a mistake as unfathomable as this one survived every inch of the quality control process. Don't make excuses, don't hedge, don't insult the audience's intelligence, and absolutely don't engage in bullshit legalese or crutch talk. Just be honest. You fucked up -- badly. Own it. Come right out and say, "This screw-up represented such a profound institutional break-down and so much mass blindness to what was staring our newsroom right in the face that even we're not sure how it happened yet, but we're damn sure embarrassed by it, and we want to show you, not tell you, what we're doing to prevent it from ever happening again." Go ahead and admit that in the rush to be first, vision can sometimes tunnel and accuracy can sometimes be sacrificed, and that's not acceptable. Be completely contrite. Be completely honest.
Anything less just makes this already ridiculous situation that much worse. And it's hard to imagine it getting any worse.