My post on Delta Zeta has generated a lot of traffic and more comments than any other post so far. And a few other links, for example: (http://wagnercomm.blogspot.com/)
I kept looking for defenders against what I thought might be an overly aggressive and unwarranted attack on the reporting of the NYT. Instead, I found a lot of people very frustrated with this kind of media story which creates a headline out of essentially nothing.
Just a couple of additional comments. I wondered why I was seeing it this way and so many others seem to be accepting the NYT report at face value. I sort of think it is the old story of the frog in a beaker. Over the years (Ted Koppel and I attribute the change to the start of 60 Minutes) we have become accustomed to news and entertainment being completely blended. After all, what is this thing called “reality tv”? But as a society we have been remarkably uncritical of the implications of this. Neil Postman did his best in the late 70s I think, when he wrote Entertaining Ourselves To Death (this books ranks up near the McLuhan sphere in my mind). Too many good people have been hurt, too many good organizations have been severely damaged or destroyed, too much economic and life value wasted on the altar of media entertainment. This has been a primary theme of mine since 2001 when I started drafting Now Is Too Late. What continually amazes me and surprises me is that this insight about the harmful effects of infotainment still strikes a lot of people as new and innovative.
The other comment has more to do with how a story like this evolves. This is important for everyone in PR and crisis communication because the main point I wanted to make relating to this story is what happened to Delta Zeta is an accident waiting to happen to you. No one is safe from a media-created crisis. Now, this is pure speculation, so don’t think I really knew what went on.
I suspect one or more of the young women in the chapter who were asked to leave were unhappy about the action taken. They may have even noted that it seemed to them more than coincidence that the ones who were left were attractive while some of the others were not. It certainly is better to be a victim of a situation like this–particularly a victim of racial or attractiveness discrimination–than to accept that you were asked to leave because you did not meet a commitment standard. So they talked. And they may have even called a reporter. At some point someone did. “Did you hear about this sorority who dumped all the unattractive, non-white ladies?” If it got like this to Mr. Dillon, his ears would have perked up. He’s a good reporter. So the story was written in his mind. The headline was already there. Hey, let’s talk to the girls, get their story. Sure enough, it was all about discrimination. He talked to the University. The president was aghast. When he finally got around to talking to the sorority and found a considerably different story, he had a problem. Either dump the great headline and story to match that he had painstakingly researched, or accept that what they said was the truth and there was no story here. Let’s see, be honest, or get ink? Hmm. I think I will get ink. This is a good story. Ok, we’ll include what the sorority said, but we will so bury it, and add the suggestion that they really wouldn’t talk to us, to firmly attach the black hat. And so the story goes… As I said, pure speculation.
But, on the other hand, the communication from the sorority leaders was sorry at best. The statement sent to Good Morning America was completely confusing.While the letter on the website contained the relevant information that made it pretty clear and obvious that the report was maliciously bad, it was buried in the middle of the letter. An experienced communicator was badly needed here. The message on the website should have made it clear that the NYT report was completely off-based and deliberately ignored the key facts that the reporter was presented.
I know a lot of people have been hurt by this report. And an awful lot of people and good organizations continue to hurt by news people who are not bad people and not incompetent people, but people responding to the pressures of their job. And the rest of us need to understand, their job is not to report the truth. Their job is collect an audience for the sake of the people paying their bills–the advertisers. Let me repeat it. Their job is to collect an audience for the sake of the people paying their bills. If telling the truth lets them do it effectively, then fine. If not, then fine. That is way overstating it, but it is also very important that people start understanding the real situation we are in.
If you have any doubts about what I am saying, I beg you to get and view the outstanding PBS three part series, News War. You will see this New York Times story, plus all the garbage on PrimeTime, etc., in its proper light.