Erik Wemple: Is 18 Minutes Enough Time for a Subject to Comment?

From a Washington Post story by media critic Erik Wemple headlined “Is 18 minutes enough time for a subject to comment?”

One line in Bloomberg News’s Wednesday story about the ongoing lawsuit Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News was unimpeachable: “Fox … didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the filing.”

“Immediately,” in this case, meant 18 minutes, according to a Fox News spokesperson.

That’s how long Bloomberg News reporter Erik Larson gave Fox News to comment for an article alleging that Dominion “said some executives and hosts at the network still haven’t handed over any records related to its coverage.” The headline: “Fox Executives in $1.6 Billion Lawsuit Haven’t Handed Over Records, Dominion Says.” Larson cited a July 18 court filing for the scoop.

Then it all fell apart.

As it turned out, that July 18 filing was actually the public version of a document filed a month earlier on June 17 relating to a discovery dispute between the two parties. Fox News secured an extension until July 1 to turn over certain documents. After Larson’s initial story was published, Fox News told Bloomberg News that it had met that deadline.

Had Bloomberg waited for that comment, it would have avoided some trouble. “Eighteen minutes doesn’t sound like fair to me even in this day and age,” says Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Post.

There were other signs of deadline-driven confusion. Dominion has filed suits against both Fox News and its parent company, Fox Corp., both of which have survived motions to dismiss. Bloomberg conflated the cases, citing the discovery dispute in the Dominion v. Fox News and a June ruling by a Delaware judge in the Dominion v. Fox Corp. case. The original story even featured the wrong case number. Dominion has bristled over the pace at which Fox News has handed over discovery documents.

Bloomberg changed the original headline to this: “Bloomberg Retracts Story on Fox Executives Handing Over Records.” The piece noted that “Bloomberg regrets the error.” Gotta hand it to Bloomberg for that: Too many news organizations fashion butt-covering clarifications and editor’s notes to avoid the swallow-hard chore of banging out a retraction.

A Bloomberg spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter.

During a week when many are lamenting new lows for public confidence in media, it’s worthwhile to pause on Bloomberg’s 18-minute gap. Speed is essential to the company’s brand, given that it competes against other caffeinated business-news outlets — Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, for starters — for scoops large, small and teensy. Years ago, the Erik Wemple Blog reported that Bloomberg’s Supreme Court team prepared 18 different ledes in advance so that it could be the first to report an important decision.

In that hurry-up-and-publish environment, comment from all sides is a journalistic principle that succumbs to journalistic impatience. Waiting for some bureaucracy to spit out a statement, after all, can mean the difference between breaking news and following news. Bloomberg uses the didn’t-immediately-respond formulation liberally, as seen in recent stories about China, tech, South Korea, e-cigarettes and more. Other major outlets, too, give it quite a workout.

Perhaps they should reconsider. Richard Tofel, former president of ProPublica, says the No. 1 reason that publications should wait for comment is to check their facts and premises, with the second reason being fairness. “As instantaneous publication has become possible, a lot of people in journalism feel pressure to give less time for comment,” says Tofel, who writes a Substack column on journalism.

So how much time is fair? That depends on the situation, says Tofel. If, say, a White House reporter for a major national publication has a tip that the president has covid-19, she could contact the press secretary with the expectation of a 10-minute turnaround. Inquiries that require people to dig through documents or contact outside contractors or lawyers are another matter.

Which brings us back to Dominion v. Fox News. Bloomberg was asking the network’s PR folks to possess instant familiarity with a procedural sliver in one of several pending cases against the network. Very few people have command of such technical matters, including, as it turns out, Bloomberg.

Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.

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