by FERN SHEN
WEAA’s Marc Steiner yesterday was touting the fact that he and his staff had broken the huge local story that Mayor Sheila Dixon planned to resign over corruption charges, but veteran investigative reporter Jayne Miller, of WBALTV, arguably beat him by over an hour. WBAL radio’s Rob Lang had the story too.
“Do you beLIEVE this?” Miller fumed, brandishing a cellphone with one of Steiner’s ubiquitous e-blasts, stating flatly at 1:36 pm that “Sheila Dixon resigned from her position as Mayor of Baltimore today.” This fuming took place in court, at a moment when Dixon’s plea deal had not yet been announced. Meanwhile, Miller knew she had first uttered the word “resignation” on a broadcast that aired at 12:11 pm.
((Update: comments from the Sun’s David Zurawik and some other thoughts are added below.))
It’s no surprise that there’s conflict over a difference of perhaps 85 minutes. In this era of the 24-hour, Twitter-driven news cycle, that’s an eternity. Plus, when it comes to Baltimore news stories, it doesn’t get much bigger than yesterday’s dramatic disclosure that Dixon was throwing in the towel.
And as for longtime investigative reporter Miller and Steiner, the former WYPR noon-hour radio talk-show host whose ouster caused a huge controversy, neither one of these characters are exactly shrinking violets.
The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik fanned the flames of this controversy yesterday when he conferred “first” status on Steiner in his “Z on tv” blog , saying Steiner broke the story with a 1:36 pm email.
“Sheila Dixon resigned from her position as Mayor of Baltimore today. Join us on The Marc Steiner Show for a 2 hour special today from 5-7pm.”
That was pretty much all Steiner said. Only problem was, it was not, at that point, true – as Zurawik and Steiner acknowledged.
Yesteday’s hearing, during which the plea deal and resignation were announced, didn’t even begin until 2:30 pm.
“While he was incorrect in saying that she had already resigned, when in fact a deal was still in the works,” Zurawik wrote, “Steiner’s e-mail was a surprising scoop given all the media outlets competing on the story.”
But one of those media outlets actually had reported that a deal was in the works: Check out Miller’s 12:11 pm broadcast, which pretty much lays out what will happen and why.
“Negotiations are under way to bring this entire case — and most likely the mayor’s political career — to a sudden and abrupt close,” Miller said. “No one is talking on the record. Any deal is likely to include the mayor’s guilty plea on perjury charges, which are still pending, and her resignation from office.”
Miller went on to give more details of the possible deal, how it had been under discussion by the two sides for several days and how a key motivation behind it was to save Dixon’s pension. She included several caveats, noting that none of her sources were willing to go on the record and that things could still change.
“If you’re going to break news,” she said, “you’d better be right about it.”
((Update: WBAL radio’s Robert Lang had the story too. He was discussing the brewing plea-and-resignation deal on the air at about 12:30 pm.))
Steiner acknowledged the error in comments he made to Zurawik. “What we should have probably written [in the e-mail blast] is that we can confirm that Mayor Dixon intends to resign, she told her staff members. That’s what we should have said. It went out as she resigned, which was our mistake.”
Will Zurawik up the “truthiness” level and acknowledge that Jayne got the scoop?
Here’s an exchange between a commenter and Zurawik on Zurawik’s blog that advances this discussion:
Sorry, Z, but you need to read some detail available on a few other sites (b’more brew, DCRTV, etc.) WBAL-TV had “it” around 12:15 and WBAL-AM had it around 12:30. That Steiner reported that she had already resigned is just evidence of sloppiness and conjecture. Both WBALs were more measured, appropriate and accurate…and timely! There’s no dancing around the reality that Jayne Miller first mentioned the deal components, including resignation, over an hour before Steiner’s email. And her mention was actually an on-air broadcast. BTW, an email is not a broadcast, especially when sent to such a small audience, so even if he had sent it 75 minutes earlier, prior to Jayne Miller’s actual on-air piece, it really can’t qualify as a scoop in the traditional sense.
Sorry BobinBaltimore, But what I wrote is thoroughly reported and factually correct. On Wednesday, I checked with both WBAL radio and WBAL TV as to when they announced Dixon’s resignation. I have an email from Mark Miller,WBAL radio’s news director, acknowledging that his station did so after Steiner, though he pointed out as my post does the inaccuracy in Steiner’s report as to tense. I also doublechecked my information with WBAL-TV’s General Manager Jordan Wertlieb (I couldn’t reach news director Michell Butt) as to when the station went on air with its coverage of her resignation at about 2:45 p.m. Check the Twitter traffic for an hour starting at 1:36 p.m. (when Steiner sent his email) and see all the folks who could not find news of her resignation at the WBAL Web sites or anywhere else on the mainstream media landscape in Baltimore. (He also announced it on-air at 1:51 p.m. as I wrote.) I did not excuse the inaccuracy of him saying she resigned when the actual resignation won’t happen until Feb. 4. That’s in my post, too. And unlike anyone else, I got Steiner on the phone to check my facts, and he acknowledged his mistake. There is a huge difference between walking up to a line — and crossing the line with the news as Steiner did. Saying a deal is in the works that could or would include her resignation is not saying she resigned, and any journalist who has ever broken a story like this knows ithat. Read all the Twitter traffic asking if Steiner was right or wrong about her resigning and what it will mean to his career if she doesn’t resign. I will politely decline comment on folks who try on the morning after to recast what they did or didn’t do rather than just acknowledging what happened on a big-time story. Anyone at WBAL who wants to dispute any of this should talk to their bosses at the stations, the folks I used to confirm my data as to when they actually announced Dixon’s resignation — not when their reporters walked up to a line and then stepped away. WBAL TV did not announce Dixon’s resignation before Steiner, and all the talk about “deal components” won’t change that. In fact, I wish people who use such language when talking about journalism and a story this important to the civic life of Baltimore could hear how they sound. As to other bloggers, God bless them all. This is one tough business. Get your page views if you can. But I can tell you this: None of them reported this story as thoroughly as I did. Thanks for your comment. Z
It’s hard to call WEAA’s email a scoop in the classic sense, but the controversy is distracting from what Steiner legitimately did do, which is pretty interesting.
Try looking at the scoop question with an analogy, say, coverage of a presidential assassination:
Who would you say got the scoop: the guy who first reports that the president was shot, or the guy who an hour later (but when the president is still breathing), reports that the president is dead? Eventually the president dies. Who has “broken” the big story?
But just to try and de-escalate the tension here a bit….I think the term “scoop” caused a problem because it’s an Old Media concept that dates back to the time when everyone got their news from the same sources. Now the media landscape is fragmented, balkanized. There are people who still just turn to newspapers or television for their news, others who depend on aggregators, still others who search it out themselves on the Internet and then there are the growing numbers who really live through their Facebook page or their Twitter feed.
For that last group, Steiner’s eblast was the first they heard about a Dixon resignation, even though WBAL television and radio had already reported it. WBAL TV’s website is a little hard to navigate and their “scoop” on the lunchtime broadcast was not promoted as such. It became hard to find, as other content piled up on the page. I found it, but somehow, the Twitterers could not. So to them, Steiner’s email with its one explosive, soon-to-be-accurate news nugget, was breaking news.
For better or worse, we’re in a world where more and more people are getting their news from eblasts and Twitter. Media positioning themselves as “breaking news” organizations, it seems, need to social network, lest their reporting be like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods and nobody hears it. But they also have to figure out how to keep speed from coming at the cost of accuracy.
Doing both is increasingly tough, especially for journalists with more than a few other challenges, as their employers struggle to pay their bills and keep the lights on. A radio reporter joked, as media members awaited news of the plea deal Wednesday, that he shouldn’t lose his hat with the station logo because “they’ve told us they won’t give us any more.” A Sun reporter cracked, as the resignation announcement was about to come down: “Wow, I always wondered which would be the first to go, Sheila Dixon or the Baltimore Sun! Woo hoo, we outlasted her!”