As the wake of the January 8 shootings in Arizona focused attention towards how the media may or may not contribute to the political vitriol in America, several major TV news division chiefs said Monday it is a stretch to blame the media for the tragedy.
Pima County, Ariz., sheriff Clarence Dupnik suggested to a national audience that radio and TV vitriol could have been a factor in the killing spree in Arizona Saturday that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely injured, a federal judge and five others dead, and more than a dozen more wounded. Dupnik spoke of "all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech," Dupnik said, but that fury and political rhetoric "is not without consequence."
NBC News chief Steve Capus called the sheriff's comments "complex."
"I don't blame the media for what happened here," he told B&C. "I blame a deeply disturbed individual, who nobody knows quite what motivated him, but there is no question that this was a deeply disturbed individual. And it also happens to come at a time of a highly-charged, and in some cases toxic, political environment and when we cover these things, the reporting is going to look at some of those statements."
Recently-installed ABC News President Ben Sherwood, who met with media members Monday in Pasadena, Calif. as part of a semi-annual gathering of TV critics, said that while he thinks it is "premature to leap in and examine what may or may not have been the media's role" in the tragedy, to blame the media would be a "giant leap."
Fox News President Roger Ailes indicated the vitriol is not constrained to one side of the aisle or the other, telling Russell Simmons on Website globalgrind.com that, "both sides are wrong, but they both do it."
Ailes also said that he has "told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually. You don't have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that."
Meanwhile, Ken Jautz, executive VP of CNN, responsible for CNN/US, does acknowledge merit of some of the sheriff's comments.
"I think the sheriff was making a broad statement about our culture and about the media, and I think it's an important point," he said. "The media has become so large and from so many platforms and with organizations of different sizes and standards, it is a point worthy of discussion. People in my position should take a thoughtful comment worthy of discussion and say, ‘How does this apply to us?'"
But Capus maintains the media is just reflecting what is taking place in the country.
"I think that the media puts a mirror on, in this case, the political world," Capus said. "There's no doubt that there is a toxic, highly charged environment surrounding many political matters these days. And we tend to cover that. I think it's very difficult to figure out when to ignore the most outrageous statements; I think we ignore outrageous statements at our own peril. But I think that the coverage of what has taken place in this country in recent years has been an accurate depiction of what is going on, and I think that that's what you've seen."
Much of the talk around the so-called "vitriol" has already focused on Fox News, which Ailes took issue with.
"It's just a bullshit way to use the death of a little girl [nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green] to get Fox News in an argument," he told Simmons.
GETTING IT WRONG
While the network news division chiefs are looking forward regarding how Tucson may affect coverage going forward, they were also forced to look back and question the prevalence Saturday afternoon of a wide-spread-and totally erroneous-report that Giffords had died. At press time, the congresswoman continues to be treated in an Arizona hospital. Many media organizations, led by National Public Radio, which had the inaccurate "news" first, have since expressed their regret.
But NBC's Capus noted that every organization that ran the erroneous report took a hit to their brand.
"Of course it's damaging. I think given the amount of chaos and the number of people shot at the scene, it was not surprising that it happened," he said. "I'm not going to question people who were on the ground and believed that they had the story accurate. I don't think anybody deliberately tries to get it wrong. In the chaos of the moment, it sadly happens sometimes. But given the severity of the incident and everything else that goes on, that is a small, minor issue that is really not worth spending a whole lot of time on. The NPR organization has come out with a very strong, sincere apology and I thought it explained how it happened. It's easy to sit in an office hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from that chaotic scene here and denounce something like that, but I think it's certainly understandable how it happens and the apology spoke volumes and I think it's time to move on from that issue."
CNN's Jautz said his organization actually had two independent sources, as well as other media reports, confirming, but still got the story wrong, and then moved as quickly as possible to fix it.
"A responsible news organization, when errors happen, the key is to quickly acknowledge and correct them. In our case we too had the error and we did that in 10 minutes or so. If the question is ‘how the hell did you do that?' I guess I shouldn't even say this, but it's in the context of other people were reporting it too. The key, which I have emphasized internally, is that you're always going to have mistakes in a large frenetic breaking news story-hopefully not mistakes of this caliber-[and] be as transparent as possible to viewers."
Over at ABC, the erroneous report never made it onto the airwaves, but was on the news division's Website as a banner for about 10 minutes on Saturday. Sherwood said the Website posted the banner based on other media reports, which he says was a "mistake" and "reflects one of my challenges at ABC News, which is to bring the organization together."
Sherwood also noted that in addition to journalistic integrity, there are also real people being affected by mistakes such as that.
"It hit me in the heart when I see what the Giffords family went through during the time [her death] was being reported and a reminder that we have to get it right. I'm proud of how ABC handled the story on the broadcast side, but accuracy is what matters most."
Additional reporting by John Eggerton
Editors Note: CBS News and Sports chief Sean McManus was contacted for this story, but was not made available prior to press time.