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42 Seconds That Sullied Helen Thomas -- and New Media

By Paula Cruickshank - July 31, 2013

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The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics sets the foundation for journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness, balance, and thoroughness. As stated in SPJ’c ethics code:

- Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should: Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

- Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.

- Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.

These are basic journalistic standards -- ethical guidelines Nesenoff did not follow.

Nesenoff never identified himself by name or “news outlet.” He never explained that he was engaged in a video project nor identified his website, RabbiLIVE.com. And most importantly, he never asked if he could conduct a personal interview and record it.

Nonetheless, many news accounts assumed that Thomas saw the cameras rolling and was fully aware she was being interviewed. I later read that Nesenoff -- unbeknownst to us at the time -- used a flip camera. That explains the one major fact absent from every article I have read: Neither Helen nor I saw a video device.

We did not know he was a journalist, yet Fox News said Nesenoff “approached Thomas with a camera … following a celebration of Jewish heritage at the White House.” Three months later, after several articles had been written with the corrected time sequence, a story by James Taranto in The American Spectator mistakenly placed Thomas at the Jewish celebration itself. The truth is that Nesenoff and Thomas met briefly after a presidential news session that took place about two hours before the Jewish heritage reception occurred.

In the video that flashed across the Internet, the first thing a viewer saw was the introductory freeze frame that reads “RabbiLive.com presents.” The next frame shows a photograph of Thomas with the heading “Helen Thomas White House Correspondent Hearst Newspapers.” The third frame shows a picture of the White House and beneath it in bold letters: “White House Jewish Heritage Month Celebration – May 27, 2010.”

In the June 20 article in the Post, the rabbi remarked that he had just started a new video project a few days before he went to the White House. On the website, he explains that RabbiLIVE.com is dedicated to teaching, preaching, and exposing “in real time as captured on video at real LIVE events with real LIVE people concerning real LIVE issues reported by a real LIVE rabbi.”

Yet, Nesenoff chose not to run the real LIVE video as soon as he shot it. He could have put the 1 minute and 58 seconds of raw footage on his website shortly afterwards, unedited, as he had done with other videos.

Instead, Nesenoff waited until his son edited the original video, removing the opening conversation about journalism with Thomas and ending it abruptly before the exchange grew non-controversial again. The carefully crafted video clip of the Thomas encounter lasted 42 seconds.

As I reread his June 20 article later, one sentence sprung from the page -- a line that didn’t resonate when I first read it. Nesenoff wrote that he thought if he could “create videos of short anecdotes about Israel -- the food, archeology, history and personal experiences -- they might go viral on the Internet and be a nice promo campaign for the country.”

Nesenoff was able to make that happen, but not because a million people immediately viewed his newly created website. The Thomas video went viral because on June 3, Nesenoff posted the video on RabbiLIVE.com and YouTube. It was the YouTube video that was picked up the next day by The Drudge Report, according to the Taranto article. In addition, Jeff Dunetz, editor/publisher of the conservative blog The Lid, posted the video clip on the conservative website Breitbart TV.

Only weeks after the Thomas video surfaced, Breitbart TV posted a heavily edited video of a speech given by a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee named Shirley Sherrod, making it look like she was publicly admitting to discrimination against a white farmer. It was only after the video clip went viral and Sherrod was fired that it came to light the speech had been edited in a way that falsely portrayed her as a racist. Once again, the news outlets -- in their rush to be first on the story -- got the story wrong.

Both videos took on a life of their own and with personally devastating consequences for Sherrod and Thomas. The parallels raised questions in this era of “citizen journalists”:

What are the responsibilities of news outlets in passing along a video without knowing whether the segment is utterly out of context? In a CQ Researcher article published Oct. 15, 2010, author Tom Price wrestled with this dilemma.

“The always-on nature of the Internet and cable news channels pressures traditional media and broadcast newsrooms to forgo the delays that can be caused by fact-checking,” he wrote. Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota journalism professor, told Price that before the inception of new media, reporters “were competing against people who had similar standards as you.” Those standards, Kirtley said, offer “context and verification.”

So are social media and traditional journalism operating under the same ground rules? I put that question to several veteran reporters who have covered the White House while witnessing pronounced changes in the journalistic model of the news business.

“What happens with social media reporting is that because it’s so instant and it’s supposed to be so instant, the necessity of fact-checking and source-checking is not there and there is no assumption that it should be there,” says Victoria Jones of Talk Radio News. So if an error is not caught quickly enough, Jones cautions, “the mistake can go viral and the correction may never get picked up.”

Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics, notes that “the siren song of Drudge … encourages a really rapid assimilation of the material in the video.” Simendinger, who has made the transition from print to online journalism herself, adds that this temptation can run roughshod over the traditional -- and safer -- practice of allowing a seasoned editor to review the content for accuracy before it is launched on the web. “First impressions are everything,” she observed. “The first flush of information, however … unfair or incomplete … is the entirety of what most people know about it.”

Disturbed by the lessons of the Thomas and Sherrod videos, I pitched an idea to the Newsmaker Committee at the National Press Club to hold a press event on social media standards. The club subsequently held a panel discussion composed of journalists and communications specialists, including W. Joseph Campbell (author of “Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism”); C-SPAN Communications Director Howard Mortman; Christian Science Monitor staff writer Linda Feldmann; and Politico reporter Patrick Gavin.

The panelists concluded that social media can be a force for good if reporters who base stories on tweets, Facebook postings and YouTube videos follow traditional journalism standards. Mortman said C-SPAN uses tweets constantly in concert with its mission “to provide all voices access to policy and to give people a chance to talk back.” Campbell added, “Social media is democratizing media.”

Nonetheless, Gavin -- a prolific tweeter for Politico -- warned journalists who use tweets for stories to be “very, very careful” about getting false information from 140-character-limit messages that are being sent to them in rapid-fire succession. Feldmann noted that “journalism is the rough draft of history, and blogs and tweets are the rough draft of the rough draft.”

To the surprise of the panelists and reporters, Helen Thomas showed up for the discussion. This time she was a guest in the audience. Feldmann turned the tables on Helen at the end of the discussion, asking her what she thought of new media. The retired White House reporter shot back, “I don’t see how you can operate without an editor. Anyone with a computer thinks they’re a journalist nowadays.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that answer. Thomas, whether you admired her for speaking her mind or condemned her for it, managed to have the final say on the state of modern journalism. Only this time, she expressed her strong opinion at a public forum that was open for sound and camera.

There is no taking back what Helen said in the 42 seconds of a video posted on YouTube, but those weren’t her last words on that hot late-spring day. She ended her conversation on the North Lawn the way she began it -- by encouraging two young people to enter the profession she loved: “Go for journalism. You’ll never regret it.” 

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Paula Cruickshank is a former White House correspondent for a Washington-based legal publication.

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