Apologies, it seems, do not come easy to Keith Olbermann.
Last Wednesday, while researching a column about the growing hatred of Rudy Giuliani among liberals, I reviewed a portion of Olbermann’s show from the prior evening in which he and Arianna Huffington discussed why Giuliani was a liar. The jumping off point for their conversation was a comment Giuliani reportedly made in which he said that leading Democrats want to invite Osama bin Laden to the White House. The sensationalistic remarks had been first reported by the Associated Press on Monday, and caused a stir among anti-Giuliani bloggers. But when reviewing Olbermann’s show, which broadcast a video clip of Giuliani’s comments, I noticed that Giuliani didn’t say Osama, but actually said Assad. As in, Syrian President Bashar Assad. This stripped the statement of any of its shock value, because Assad was one of the leaders who Barack Obama has, in fact, said he would be willing to meet with in Washington, with no preconditions, within the first year of his presidency. After discovering the error, I did a blog post reporting my findings, and assumed that all of the news outlets that erroneously reported what Giuliani said would have to issue corrections.
The reason I made that assumption is that I had spent more than three years as a reporter with Reuters, and though it may be hard for some to believe, I was required to issue an immediate correction whenever I made an obvious factual error, no matter how minor. It was always a considerable embarrassment to have my name appear under a headline that began with the all-in-caps word “CORRECTED,” but I understood that part of being a journalist was owning up to errors as soon as they were brought to my attention. (Some examples from the archives here and here.)
The first few hours following my initial post on the error reaffirmed my understanding of standard journalistic practice. Andrew Sullivan, who had lambasted Giuliani based on the inaccurate remarks, issued a correction. The AP also corrected its story. It seemed natural to me that Olbermann would quickly have to follow suit. But the only mention of Giuliani on Wednesday night’s show was yet another segment attacking him.
On Thursday, I called MSNBC’s media relations office, and asked whether they planned to correct the mistake. I was instructed by the woman who answered the phone to send an email with the details so she could pass them along. I followed up with a cordial email explaining that on Tuesday’s show, Olbermann said, “A year before the election and Rudy Giuliani is already publicly contending the Democrats are willing to invite Osama bin Laden to the White House to negotiate. Sure they are, buster.” I noted that in the video clip that ran on Olbermann’s show, Giuliani clearly said Assad — and the official transcript of the show appearing on the MSNBC website reflected this. I also pointed out that the AP had already corrected its story, and wrote, “I have been following this story, and am inquiring as to whether ‘Countdown’ plans to correct the error.” After not receiving a response, I spoke to the woman two more times that afternoon, but was told only that she would pass my message along to MSNBC spokeswoman Alana Russo.
After yet another Olbermann show passed by on Thursday night, I called back on Friday and again was told that my message would be passed along. Since I wasn’t making any progress, I decided to contact Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz about the story. I specifically wondered whether the standards for correcting errors on television were different from what I was accustomed to from my years working at a wire service.
“Cable news hosts have great leeway to sound off about political candidates, but they can’t bend the facts in the process,” Kurtz wrote back to me that afternoon. “It looks to me that Olbermann made a mistake in criticizing Giuliani for supposedly saying the Democrats would invite Osama to the White House, when Rudy said Assad. The best course would be for Keith to correct the record.”
I asked Kurtz whether he planned to follow up on the story. He soon responded that he had just called MSNBC and, much to my surprise, was informed that a correction would air Friday night — obviously making his own comments dated.
I called MSNBC for the fifth time, and the previously elusive spokeswoman Russo answered her own phone, apologized for not being able to take my calls the previous day, and informed me that Olbermann would issue a correction and apologize that night.
During his Friday show, Olbermann did apologize, but only reaffirmed his utter lack of professionalism. Instead of taking responsibility for the error, he pointed fingers at the AP. “There are obviously mitigating circumstances regarding this mistake,” he said, because the AP didn’t corrected its story until 47 hours after it hit the wires, or 21 hours after his Tuesday show aired.
In reality, Olbermann didn’t have to depend on the AP, because he aired the actual video of Giuliani’s remarks. In rebroadcasting the remarks during his correction, Olberman said they showed “why there was widespread confusion” about what Giuliani said. No, actually, the video showed Giuliani said Assad, something that was clear as a bell to your humble correspondent, as well as to whoever transcribed Olbermann’s show for MSNBC. It is also worth noting that the AP correction still hit the wires nearly two and a half hours before his Wednesday show, and by early Thursday I had already informed MSNBC of the error, just in case he missed it. Yet Olbermann still waited until well into his Friday broadcast to issue a correction and apology to Giuliani. “To him, and to you, I apologize,” he said after his long-winded explanation.
The rest was run of the mill Olbermann. He expressed surprise at a past Giuliani comment that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “government of Iran is considered to be the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.” This, even though the State Department in its annual report on the subject released on April 30 wrote, “Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism.” Olbermann also gave Giuliani all three positions in his enlightening regular feature, “The Worst Person in the World.” But dissecting that would require another column, and I’d rather not make correcting Keith a full-time job.