Voters must consider issues, not images

For any of you who were fortunate enough to have missed it, this month’s sweeps-period newscasts provided local viewers with a bumper crop of blood, sex and pseudo-investigations, not to mention a bona fide controversy about the ethical boundaries of news gathering. Let’s get you caught up.
Among other things, you missed a WCCO-4 story which “exposed” the fact that Internet terminals at the Minneapolis Public Library were being used to access pornography. There was actually nothing new in this report, but it gave the Hometown Team the chance to show some naked bodies — naughty parts concealed — on the nightly news.
You missed another WCCO story that documented the growing problem of “air rage,” which, it turns out, is neither growing nor is it much of a problem.
You also missed KARE-11’s boundary-pushing coverage of the escaped cow on Interstate Highway 394. Fearing an accident, state troopers had to kill the cow, which took dozens of shots. KARE led the pack by showing the most graphic images from the scene, including a good one of the final death blow — a shotgun blast that turned Bessie into hamburger before our eyes.
And you also missed a couple of local news outfits boasting about who was first with the news that Timberwolves guard Malik Sealy had been killed in a car accident.
But the grand marshall of this parade of ignominy was Tom Lyden, the intrepid reporter from KMSP-9 who used some creative methods in securing video for his May 3 story on illegal dog fighting.
On April 27, Lyden was on the property of a man who had been accused of arranging dog fights. Lyden noticed a videotape in the back of the man’s parked car, so he stole it. Fortunately for him, the video contained disturbing images of an actual dog fight, which he used in his report.
About a week and a half later, Lyden was publicly rebuked by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists for taking the tape. And on May 16, Lyden was charged with three misdemeanors.
In the weeks since his dog fight story was broadcast, Lyden has been excoriated by colleagues and the public, and he has become the media whipping boy du jour.
There is no doubt Lyden’s actions were unethical, and they cannot be excused. But the controversy surrounding his unorthodox news gathering highlights a couple of related problems that are more troubling and more systemic than one reporter’s sticky fingers.
The first is the persistent unwillingness of journalists to admit their mistakes. The second is that, despite the finger-pointing in this and other high-profile cases, broadcasters and journalism organizations are generally silent about the more common lapses of judgment made in the daily rush for ratings points.
What Tom Lyden did was inexcusable. He violated a basic tenet of journalism ethics. But even though his actions were inexcusable, they were not unforgivable. Lyden made a mistake. It was a momentary lapse of judgment.
That’s what I thought until I read his response in the Star Tribune, in which he characterized his actions as “aggressive reporting.” For weeks afterward, Lyden’s superiors backed him up. KMSP Assistant News Director Alan Beck downplayed the incident, saying reporters often move in “gray areas.” And General Manager Stu Swartz reacted indignantly to the condemnation from the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists, suggesting that its leaders simply didn’t know the facts.
“They are chastising Tom Lyden, but they are assuming all the facts that have been reported are correct,” he told the Star Tribune. “The facts will play out in time.”
This was echoed by News Director Dana Benson, who refused to offer an apology and instead accused local journalists and others of “rushing to judgment.”
But what’s wrong with rushing to judgment when the salient facts are not in dispute? Lyden admitted to taking the tape. We don’t need to wait for a court ruling about whether or not his actions were illegal to make the ethical judgment that what he did was wrong.
Instead of admitting the mistake and moving on, Lyden and the KMSP brass reacted defensively, and in the process reinforced the perception that journalists are unapologetic elitists who answer only to themselves.
Lyden did eventually apologize on the air, but only after weeks of flaying from viewers and colleagues. And his apology was less than poignant. He delivered it on location, using his normal broadcasting voice, which conveyed no sincerity.
“Caught in the rush of getting the story, I went too far,” Lyden said, as if talking to a group of second-graders. “My desire to get the story got the best of me. I should’ve known better.”
Instead of impressing viewers, Lyden came off like a cloying weenie.
The apology was too late and too flimsy, and the damage was done. Of course, Lyden, Beck, Benson and Swartz could have avoided all of this with a prompt and genuine statement of regret. But like many of their colleagues in the news media, they seem to have persuaded themselves that issuing an apology is the highest expression of personal and professional defeat.
It’s hard to like people like that. It’s even harder to trust them.
We need more apologies in journalism. But we also need more open condemnation of the more routine journalistic excesses evident every day on the nightly newscasts.
I’m not talking about gross ethical violations like Lyden’s. I’m talking about content. I’m talking about the over-hyped, misleading, pandering pap that’s routinely passed off as news today.
We should applaud the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists for censuring Tom Lyden, but where is its press release attacking the sensationalism in the local broadcast news? Where are the National Association of Broadcasters’ condemnations of deceptive and over-sold consumer affairs “investigations”? Where are the industry statements criticizing the gratuitous use of titillating video in morning and family-hour newscasts?
The broadcast news industry needs to start setting some standards for itself, and the people working in broadcasting need to start showing some courage.
We’ve all had our fun pummeling Tom Lyden. But let’s turn our attention now to elevating the standards for what actually appears on the air.

Erik Ugland’s column appears alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments about his columns or the Daily at [email protected]