Crisis Management: Death by Journalism?: Understanding the media – from archives
For chilling insight into being on the wrong side of negative news coverage, read Jerry Bledsoe’s Death by Journalism? One Teacher’s Fateful Encounter With Political Correctness. This book by the former newspaper columnist and author of Bitter Blood and other bestsellers, vividly recounts a local example in which I played a role. It happened at Randolph Community College in late 1998 in NC.
Greensboro’s News and Record – Bledsoe’s former employer – reported that a local member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans taught in a non-academic course on the Civil War that slaves were “happy.”
Within days this startling claim ricocheted around the nation’s newspapers and even reached the BBC in London. Nightline, Good Morning America, and talk show hosts called. The instructor and his students insisted the report was wrong. The college wanted to sort fact from fiction and protect academic freedom, but the story spread and the school was media ground zero. Skeptical of the story’s accuracy, yet faced with white-hot attention and a threat of further media “revelations,” the school suspended and then cancelled the one remaining class. National media interest waned, but local fallout persisted.
I advised the college on this controversy and recommended the school suspend the class to stop the PR bloodbath. Bledsoe, a longtime acquaintance, interviewed me and relates my role in the book. Since we all want to protect our reputations, I see at least 5 lessons from this unpleasant affair.
1. Your good name can vanish in hours. You can become media road kill with breathtaking speed. Bledsoe tells just how quickly. The college tried to alert the newspaper that it might be preparing inaccurate stories to no avail. (One unanswered question is whether the school could have or should have seen the potential for trouble when it permitted the course in the first place.)
2. Your reputation is not the media’s concern. If you are the target of negative news coverage, you may believe your position is correct (and indeed it may be), but the attacking news operation will loathe pulling back from its original stories. Reporters and editors believe they are on a “mission from God” (I know because I used to be a journalist), and only strong countering evidence has a chance of reversing them. This is not because news organizations are recalcitrant, but because their job is to break the big story and ride it. Short of their discovering deceit by a reporter or facing legitimate legal attack, they will back their journalists. (And even a legal attack does not guarantee retraction.)
3. Perception is the reality you must confront. Technically speaking, the truth may be on your side, but if a negative perception has taken hold, then you must deal with it and give up on only arguing that you are in the right. Since the press is not concerned about your reputation and will probably have more credibility with the public than you, your well-intentioned insistence of innocence will likely not be believed. Therefore, you must act engage in genuine problem solving that will be perceived as such. You not like it, but actions speak louder than words that are often seen as mere spin control.
4. Discerning the truth is hard. While you may simply see this as a case of a college teaching mistake, a media explosion, and the cancellation of the “offending” course, this matter was indeed complex – as Bledsoe explains. With his penchant for detail, he’s written a book with a worrisome undertone suggesting that the prejudices in all of us can lead us to faulty conclusions about the actions of others. Sometimes we – each of us – could be wrong about the other.
5. Real people get hurt. Accused instructor Jack Perdue, hurt and offended and insisting that he never taught that slaves were “happy” died 2 ½ months after about the story broke. Friends said it was from the stress. The college president was hounded in his community for canceling the controversial course. He retired. The reporter who wrote the first story left the newspaper.
We readers and viewers consume controversies like popcorn and rarely appreciate that the people at the center often exist in a personal hell. Some never recover. The rest never forget.