When Nightline and ABC News paint with a broad brush

ABC World News

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This evening, ABC World News and Nightline will both air stories about corrupt state legislators. They’re calling the series, “State House Scoundrels”. The teaser says, “a lack of scrutiny breeds scandal among state lawmakers.”

I got tipped off about it when ABC’s Matt Mosk blogged about the stories on The Blotter, the blog of the ABC‘s investigative unit headed by Brian Ross. In his blog post, Mosk wrote that,

“at a national convention of state legislators in Louisville, Kentucky over the summer, more than 1,300 politicians and staffers fanned out across Louisville to a series of corporate and lobbyist sponsored dinners and parties, including a lavish reception at the world-famous horse racing venue Churchill Downs sponsored by Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo and Sprint, among others, and a massive waterfront concert. Lawmakers devoured prime rib and tenderloin, and consumed bourbon by the barrel.”

The online piece also features footage of a legislator from Puerto Rico who, according to ABC,  “made unwanted advances on a student journalist, groping and kissing her — all as the cameras rolled.”

The story also addresses the fact that 80 state legislators have been indicted or convicted in the last five years.

Yet the facts tell a somewhat different story.

Sprint was one of 95 companies and trade associations who sponsored the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) meeting which included over 150 sessions on state budgets, state transportation, state welfare and health programs as well as the reception at Churchill Downs.

As part of the NCSL meeting, there was one other social event besides the Churchill Downs reception. That’s it.

It’s not clear if the stories tonight will run with footage from the meetings panel discussions on the state budgets and the like — there was more than 40 hours of this — but I’m not holding my breath.

I also doubt that ABC will point out that of the 95 sponsors, 24 companies and trade associations gave more than Sprint’s in-kind loan of Nextel Walkie Talkie phones which NCSL staff used to run their conference.

ABC will certainly run the footage of the Puerto Rican legislator — and they should — but here’s the important detail which will likely be lost on viewers. The incident didn’t occur at an event organized by NCSL or sponsored by Sprint. It actually happened at a party held in Louisville that week and hosted by the State Government Affairs Council. Sprint is not a member of this group, nor did we sponsor the event in question.

But here’s the rub. Regardless of whether Sprint is the lead sponsor or the only sponsor, ABC is implying that by participating in NCSL, Sprint and other companies are doing something inappropriate. We’re not. No one at Sprint or any other NCSL sponsor has any role in determining the topics or presenters at the meeting’s educational panels. All the meetings sessions are open to the public and available online. Furthermore, all of our lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions are fully disclosed by law.

ABC also seems to contend that such meetings serve no good public purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of my favorite books on public policy dubbed the states, “Laboratories of Democracy”. It outlines how most of the best ideas for reinventing government come from the states. Meetings like these help our legislators — most of whom are part-time lawmakers — learn what’s working in other states to fix the problems facing their communities.

It’s disappointing that with news outlets covering so little of what happens in state government that ABC would focus on this, making the claim that state legislators are convicted at a “disgraceful” level. I checked with NCSL: the number of state legislators convicted of crimes in the United States is less than 1 percent, which compares favorably to virtually any segment of society or industry. Does that mean that ABC shouldn’t report on the 80 elected officials who’ve been indicted or convicted in the last five years? Of course not — they should, but with some perspective and context that’s lacking from their online piece.

I pushed back hard in my conversations with Mr. Mosk. I agreed that it was okay to list Sprint as a sponsor, but I implored him to provide some context for our involvement — that we were one of 95 sponsors . He refused. He did promise me that when they run the footage of the Puerto Rican legislator, no one at ABC will mention Sprint’s name.

At the end of the day, as a reader, viewer and PR person, all I expect from journalists is that they treat their subjects fairly and report accurately. If what’s on ABC’s website today is any indication of what they will broadcast later tonight, ABC has failed to meet that objective.

I’m not sure what else I could have done to handle this situation differently. Obviously, I want to avoid what a friend of mind calls a “brand bruise”, but when a news broadcast is already baked, it’s very difficult to get the story changed.

For my fellow PR people out there, how would you have handled this differently?


Note : this post as with all my blog entries are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect Sprint’s views. For more on my comment policy, please check the home page of this blog.

One response to “When Nightline and ABC News paint with a broad brush

  1. Great blog. Thanks for calling out ABC.

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