When I first saw the KTVU video in which anchorwoman Tori Campbell gave the fictional names of the Asiana Airlines pilots — Captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow — I laughed. I laughed out loud, and then I watched it again. After days of watching the painful news about the July 6 crash that killed three and left many wounded, it felt good to laugh. I didn’t think that the gaffe had racist intent. I figured it was just a puerile newsroom prank that somehow made it on the air.
I never would have made that mistake, I liked to think, but I’ve made other dumb mistakes.
Later, I learned that someone in the newsroom had gotten the names and someone in the newsroom had called the National Transportation Safety Board, where someone else verified the names, and that’s how a mistake that should not have happened made it onto live TV and then went viral.
Like a lot of people who work in a Bay Area newsroom, I’m not laughing anymore.
You see, when I tried to write on the mishap, I called Roland De Wolk, a producer at KTVU but also the husband of my best friend, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci. Roland said he’d love to tell me what had happened, but he couldn’t and referred me to the station’s general manager, Tom Raponi, whom I called for days. Raponi never called me back.
Because Carla can keep a secret, I had no idea that days later, I’d see Roland’s name listed among three veteran journalists whom, the Chronicle’s Phil Mateir and Andy Ross reported, KTVU management was canning. It also never occurred to me because De Wolk is one of the most tenacious and thorough journalists I know. He’s won a Society of Professional Journalists lifetime achievement award, four James Madison Freedom of Information Awards and more for his top-notch investigative work. There are a number of shady characters in Oakland who no doubt are celebrating his untimely departure from the station.
Readers should feel free to ignore what I have to say on the subject, because I am biased on the subject of De Wolk. But this story also hits too close to home because we’re both in the news business, in which everyone is overworked and some are under-protected. As revenue has fallen and news organizations have been forced to lay off good writers and editors, management has been forced to throw more and more work at everyone, and mistakes are inevitable.
As former KTVU political editor Randy Shandobil told the Chronicle, KTVU staffers “were working harder and harder and feeling less secure about what was hitting the air.” At Channel 2 and elsewhere, “people are overtaxed and have more responsibility sometimes than they can handle. And sometimes, in situations like this, terrible mistakes happen that are bigger than one person. It’s systemic.”
Over the years, I’ve watched as journalists have been let go because they broke the rules in bad faith. For example, The New York Times’ Jayson Blair and New Republic’s Stephen Glass made up sources, stories even, and those fraudsters deserved to go.
In this case, from my limited viewpoint, I see an overworked newsroom in which people made an honest mistake, confirmed by the NTSB and quickly corrected. Then the managers who put those hamsters on the nonstop treadmill — and kept it running — discarded them when they stumbled.
In these days, when newsrooms have been whittled down to nothing and the remaining journalists are worked silly, I expect to see more such mistakes. I expect to make some of them. That’s why newspapers run corrections.
So here’s the question many Bay Area journalists are asking themselves in the wake of the KTVU purge: When I make my next mistake, will management pick me up, dust me off and tell me not to screw up again, or will it cut me loose?
Email Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.