When Tim Russert collapsed 10 days ago, his colleagues at NBC held off reporting the news for almost two hours so his family wouldn’t hear about it from the media. They also asked other TV networks to hold off reporting it, which they apparently agreed to do. A decade ago, when TV and radio had a lock on real-time news dissemination, this cozy arrangement might have stopped the news from spreading. In this day and age, of course, it didn’t.
The news appeared on Wikipedia 40 minutes before the NBC report, with all of the verbs in Tim’s entry changed from present tense to past. It appeared on the New York Times’s web site 5 minutes before the NBC story. It zipped around Twitter all afternoon.
All that is to be expected. But here’s the scandalous part of the story:
According to the NYT, the person who updated the Wikipedia entry 40 minutes before NBC reported it worked at Internet Broadcasting Services, a company that provides web services to TV stations including NBC affiliates. IBS says a “junior-level employee” changed the Wikipedia entry to reflect Russert’s death because he or she thought it was common knowledge. When NBC discovered the entry–and freaked out about it–someone else at IBS deleted the date of Russert’s death and changed all of the verb tenses back. And then IBS took care of the employee. NYT:
An I.B.S. spokeswoman…added that the company had “taken the necessary measures with the employee and apologized to NBC.” NBC News said it was told the employee was fired.”
If the employee learned the news because NBC was officially distributing it to affiliates under embargo, that’s one thing (the firing would be appropriate). If the employee heard about it unofficially, however, from friends at NBC or I.B.S., then the firing was outrageous.* UPDATE: An NBC exec disputes the NYT report, and says the IBS employee was merely suspended, temporarily. We’ll update if we can confirm. UPDATE2: Confirmed! A second source tell us that the poor IBS employee is still employed at IBS.
It’s one thing for a news organisation to decide to delay reporting news of a staffer’s death out of deference to his or her family (this makes sense). It’s another for the organisation to expect other organisations to follow the same policy. And it is yet another thing for someone to deliberately strike accurate facts from a collective record to appease an upset client, which is what someone at IBS apparently did.
The world has changed in last 15 years, and the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. If NBC wants to maintain its tradition with respect to staffers’ deaths, that’s fine. In the meantime, it should recognise that its chances of controlling a story this big are–and should be–infinitesimal and that “citizen journalism” has long since gone mainstream. If the employee at IBS who updated the Wikipedia entry did not learn of it via a confidential NBC communication, moreover, NBC and IBS owe him or her an apology and a job.
UPDATE: SAI editor Peter Kafka thinks it’s time for everyone to rally around the poor person who got canned: “Presumably someone on Wikipedia will tell us where we can send donations to the mystery employee’s legal defence/re-employment fund.”