Once the No. 1 independent television news in the country, KTVU-TV 2 in Oakland, Calif., is suddenly an international laughing stock.
Management is, to say the least, not laughing.
Unfortunately, almost everyone else is.
The not funny part of the story is the devastating crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214 in San Francisco on July 6. The plane came in too low on landing, and the tail hit the ground first.
Three people were killed and more than 180 injured.
KTVU jumped on the story with all-out news coverage, much of which was picked up by news outlets nationwide.
They were proud of their work and praised themselves – a reaction seasoned by hubris, which culminated with the on-air gaffe.
The news department hit the rocks on July 12 during the Noon News program, and we (and they) haven’t heard the end of it.
Anchor Tori Campbell soberly announced, as only an anchor can, “We have just learned the names of the four pilots on board” that doomed flight.
Remember, every news operation wants to be “first,” especially on a big story.
This was big; they wanted to continue their “first with the most” image.
Then Campbell read the names, which were also shown on the screen.
Big problem: those weren’t the names of the pilots. In fact, they weren’t even real names, even though Campbell said the NTSB had confirmed them.
The names on the screen and Campbell’s words?
Sum Ting Wong.
Wi To Lo.
Ho Lee Fuk (which she pronounced Fook)
Bang Ding Ow.
She read them and didn’t notice what she was saying. But the viewers did, and everything quickly hit the fan.
(Read those names out loud, slowly.)
As might be expected, there were purists who considered the mistake an insult to Asians; indeed, the airline at first threatened to sue the station, but since has backed off.
The station quickly apologized, saying the NTSB confirmed the information.
The feds first denied it, then said it was a summer intern with no authority to validate any information who told KTVU those names were correct – and that person has been fired.
KTVU evening anchor Frank Somerville gave at least two lengthy apologies saying that somehow they made a mistake and are sorry.
But HOW could something like that happen?
Critics jumped all over Campbell, saying she should have known better.
Speaking as a long-time anchor in San Francisco/Oakland and Los Angeles, I know how that could happen.
Everyone thinks anchors read and vet every word of copy (and many do) before the program.
But what happens when a story breaks during the program and an additional story or update is given to the anchor and put in the prompter?
What happens is that the anchor reads what’s in front of them. They don’t question the words – they just read. That’s their job; they’re forced to depend on the judgment of the producer who OK’d the story for air.
Look at the video clips of her delivery. You can see in her eyes that she’s reading. Clearly, the impact of those words isn’t registering in her brain. If it is, she’s awfully good at hiding it.
By the way, you might have some trouble finding the clip. KTVU is reportedly trying to prevent any further availability of the video.
Legal issues, you know!
The suits take it seriously and Asiana airlines isn’t laughing, but for most people who saw and heard that newscast – and the viral spread of the clip on the Internet – it was a pretty funny incident which was also supremely stupid and had ramifications, no doubt, far beyond the intent of the person who made it possible.
Who is that mysterious person? So far, no one knows, at least publicly.
Before proceeding, I need to make something clear. I worked for KTVU-TV 2, in Oakland, for more than 12 years – 10 anchoring “The Ten O’Clock News,” the No. 1 newscast in the market at that time and the sole news program on the station, and then two years anchoring the newly launched “2 at Noon,” a mix of news, interviews and information.
It was a terrific news operation with excellent management and an experienced and thoughtful staff. No, everyone didn’t get along with each other every minute, but our goal was always a top-notch, accurate and well-presented news program.
The audience rewarded that by making us No. 1 in the ratings. The shelf of Emmy and other awards for the program and staff over the years speaks to that level of excellence maintained by the guy who guided us with an experienced hand, News Director Fred Zehnder.
He is, by the way, the only person in this business about whom I have never heard a negative word.
That said, Fred is no longer there. Nor am I, nor my co-anchor and most of the people with whom we worked have also moved on.
The business has changed, cutbacks affect coverage, staff is younger and more inexperienced, management is from other markets and don’t understand the Bay Area.
The station, owned by Cox out of Atlanta, is the Fox outlet in the market. Reports are they’re furious, and there’s an all-out effort to find out who came up with those names.
Rumors are rampant it was an inside job and the call to the NTSB was an effort to legitimize it. I wonder if perhaps the fired NTSB intern was in on the joke.
At this point, anything’s possible, but word has it staff has been told to say nothing and everyone’s waiting for the ax to fall.
On whose neck? Time will tell.
Ain’t show business grand? And have no doubt, news IS show business!