On Media: Blogging the news

by Rick Redding

Back on April 21, WHAS-TV’s Mark Hebert did something rare in television news — he admitted he got a story wrong. (Full disclosure: Hebert and I have been close friends for nearly three decades).

Hebert reported on-air and wrote in his station blog — a relatively new addition to the WHAS Web site — that an ongoing feud between University of Louisville Athletics Director Tom Jurich and Mayor Jerry Abramson played a role in the university’s refusal to consider the old Water Company site for the new basketball arena.

It turns out that Tom and Jerry, who first opposed each other when they were on opposite sides of the dispute over the failed attempt to bring an NBA team to town, buried the hatchet some time ago. They even sat together at U of L women’s basketball games. U of L Vice President Kenny Klein told Hebert that while the two did have a history of blow-ups, they’d effectively kissed and made up. At the time, however, Hebert didn’t believe it. When he learned Klein was right, he wrote a sincere apology online for the goof.

This is interesting for reasons beyond the obvious. The key question is, if this incorrect information went out over the airwaves, why was it only corrected on the company blog? If the station had admitted this mistake on air, would the apology have been handled differently? And does the blog, which, as a WHAS-TV product, theoretically carries the same level of credibility as its news, go through the same system of editing and fact-checking? Does the station face the same level of public scrutiny for what it publishes on its Web site as it does for what it puts on the air?

It seems like an issue the station’s owner, Belo Corp., would want to address. Belo just wrote a $7.4 million check after losing a court battle stemming from its refusal to retract statements made in a story about a ride at Kentucky Kingdom.

Another relevant question: Is a station’s blog simply an outlet for editorial comment from reporters, a way to “empty the notebook” of good reporting nuggets that didn’t make it on the air?

If so, me and any avid consumer of news should be jumping up and down to support it. As a news consumer, I can choose which sources I place my confidence in, and with someone like Hebert, who’s been following this stuff for a long time, I can follow his blog to get the juicy behind-the-scenes maneuvering that make politics fun. In the same way, I enjoy the blogging efforts of LEO’s reigning insiders, Mark Nickolas and Billy Reed.

The big difference here is that Reed and Nickolas self-publish their blogs — just as thousands of American do about all sorts of topics, whether they’re credentialed journalists or not. In fact, their reputations alone determine the credibility of their blogs — and the number of readers who follow them.

LEO, which has had a few false starts of its own in publishing writers’ blogs, has nothing to do with Reed’s and Nickolas’s.

Here’s another nugget I learned only on Hebert’s blog. It concerns a May visit to Louisville by First Lady Laura Bush. The Republican National Committee sent out a news release announcing the visit, but warned that the fund-raiser was not open to the public or media. The interesting part of the release was what was left out — the location of the luncheon. The Courier-Journal, for one, bought the RNC’s release and buried the story on an inside page in the Metro section, going so far as to list the menu. Some television reports later delivered the news that Mrs. Bush was in town, and that she raised $325,000 from just 50 people (let’s see, that’s $6,500 a head for, as The C-J reported, tomato-lentil soup). Those reports, too, did not mention the location.

Nickolas and Hebert knew the real story and wrote about it on their blogs — that it was Matt Thornton, president of Thornton Oil, who hosted the shindig at his home. That an oil company executive was behind the fund-raiser was the part of the story the RNC must have been hiding, or at least not drawing attention to. Raising big money from big oil, at a time when U.S. gas prices are at an all-time high, Hebert wrote, might not be such a popular move for the party.

But considering how hard it is to actually find Hebert’s blog on the WHAS-TV site, Republicans can rest assured that few voters learned of Louisville’s Big Oil connection to the First Lady. But they do know about the soup.

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