The worst journalism of 2014

A recap of this year's most cringeworthy news blunders

AP740522156584.jpg NFL Ray Rice arrives with his wife Janay Palmer for an appeal hearing of his indefinite suspension from the NFL in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCraw)

News blunders tend to have short lifespans. They’re outed by watchful eyes, social media erupts, and the gears of outrage begin to turn. But after a brief flourish of snarky finger-wagging, they typically disappear, lost amid the ever-expanding sea of digital content. 

This year has been one of many triumphs for journalists, who’ve told the stories of political struggle at home and violent struggle abroad, a public health crisis and airline tragedies that drew the eyes of the world, and self-examinations of American racial, domestic, and sexual norms. There have also been plenty of screw-ups, and CJR has kept track of them so you don’t have to. The additional DARTS awarded below aren’t necessarily the most impactful bloopers of the year, though several of them are among the most cringeworthy. Here’s one last salute to the year’s worst of the worst before their final burial at digital sea.

A complete unknown, like Rolling Stone

The disintegration of the magazine’s visceral campus rape story from Nov. 19 wins this year’s media-fail sweepstakes. University of Virginia student “Jackie”’s gang rape tale was heralded as the type of story only Rolling Stone was capable of telling, one that could change the national conversation around contemporary sexual culture. But within two weeks, it began to fall apart.

Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely didn’t contact the alleged perpetrators of Jackie’s rape, not to mention three of her friends portrayed as unsympathetic to it. It turns out, as reported in a sterling clean-up job by The Washington Post, that Jackie’s account in the story doesn’t match her friends’ recollections of the incident. A number of other key details from the piece have since been disputed or disproved. In its initial editor’s note regarding the story — since updated — Rolling Stone deflected criticism: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” It deserves a DART for blaming its utter failure on someone else, and many more for all the lapses leading up to it. 

When life gives you Lemon

As one of the most recognizable anchors on CNN, Don Lemon has helped lead the cable network’s coverage of the biggest stories of the year. Live television is exceedingly difficult to produce, of course, but Lemon’s gaffes this year offer a case study in how to choose words wisely — or not. 

On March 20, he asked guests whether Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could have been swallowed by a black hole: “I know it’s preposterous, but is it preposterous?” He later compared spanking children to training dogs and probed similarities between the release of US Army POW Bowe Bergdahl and the Showtime series Homeland. When an alleged Bill Cosby rape victim appeared on his show on Nov. 18, he lectured, “You know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it…Meaning the use of teeth, right?” Less than a week later, as protests turned violent in Ferguson, MO, he described the scene: “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana in the air.” Lemon’s job isn’t easy. But he’s earned a DART for going there. Obviously.

Africa is a country

The foreign correspondent who parachutes into the developing world, only to speak with fellow foreigners, is thankfully an outdated trope—mostly. CBS’ 60 Minutes deserves a DART for “The Ebola Hot Zone,” a segment on the virus in Liberia where not a single local was interviewed on camera. Reporter Lara Logan visited an American-run treatment center, speaking to a nurse and four doctors, including a virologist and an infectious disease specialist—all from the US. 

While Logan reported that most of the center’s staff were Liberian, none of them were interviewed. Other Liberians chant hymns, quietly disinfect vehicles, and dig graves. Or they are patients, including an infected 5-year-old boy and his father who appear onscreen, but whose story is relayed to Logan via an American nurse. As Columbia Journalism School professor and former New York Times Africa correspondent Howard French pointed out on Storify, there was one African who got to speak: the South Africa-born Logan.

Ethical hazard

When “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” was published on Jan. 15, it was initially heralded as another longform coup for Grantland. Writer Caleb Hannan told the fascinating tale of a “mysterious inventor who built a ‘scientifically superior’ golf club,” establishing that Dr V., Essay Anne Vanderbilt, fudged her scientific and academic credentials while peddling her wares. But he also outed her as transgender, not only in the story itself, but also to one of her business associates during the reporting process. Worse yet, Hannan conflates the two traits — con artist and transgender woman — throughout the piece: “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.”

Dr. V committed suicide in October, months before the nearly 8,000-word feature was eventually published. Yet the story doesn’t mention this until the third-to-last paragraph — it’s practically a footnote. Grantland editor Bill Simmons later apologized for the piece’s lack of sensitivity toward gender identity, but added, “even now, it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story.” Simmons may be right, though had this piece not been pursued Dr. V may still be alive. That stunning lack of empathy justifies a DART.

Banish this poll

A DART also goes to Time for pushing “feminist” as a term that ought to be cut in their annual “word banishment” poll, alongside “kale,” “disrupt,” and “om nom nom nom.” “When did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party?” the newsweekly asked. Unsurprisingly, that cued media outrage and a protest by the National Organization for Women outside the magazine’s New York headquarters.

“While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost,” editor Nancy Gibbs wrote in an apology. At best, the choice to include the word  reflects a stunningly poor assumption that society has somehow moved beyond gender difference, making the term passé and ripe for reconsideration. (See also: New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s flubbed attempt to subvert the “angry black woman” stereotype when covering producer Shonda Rhimes). At worst, it was a calculated troll on readers, and a distasteful attempt to lure hate-clicks—put differently, a way to “invite debate.”

Fox & Fail

Fox & Friends has faced plenty of criticism over the years for its lack of journalistic scruples, and deservedly so. Still, some on-air exchanges stand out. After TMZ published security footage of Ray Rice, a 206-pound professional football player, cold-cocking then-fiancee Janay Palmer in an elevator and then dragging her limp body across the floor, the show’s hosts had peculiarly rosy analyses. “I think the message is, take the stairs,” co-host Brian Kilmeade said. Apparently unaware of the hole his colleague had just dug, counterpart Steve Doocey dug deeper: “The message is, when you’re in an elevator, there’s a camera.” The program drew more than 1 million viewers that day.

“Domestic abuse is a very serious issue to us, I can assure you,” Kilmeade said the next day in a non-apology apology. Is it? He and his compatriots get a DART for not convincing us.

Lunch money

It was too good to be true: A 17-year-old amasses $72 million by playing the stock market. The first line of New York magazine’s feature on Mohammed Islam foreshadows its demise: “Rumors, on Wall Street, can be powerful.” The high school senior was portrayed as an investment savant, with dreams of hedge funds and a slick bachelor pad in Manhattan — “though his parents won’t let him live in it until he turns 18.” The entire story turned out to be untrue. Islam and his friends lied to the magazine about his financial prowess, treating reporter Jessica Pressler to a caviar-filled lunch to prove their point.

“Our fact-checking process was obviously inadequate,” an editor’s note later said. Indeed, in an interview later with the New York Observer, Islam said he met New York’s factchecker beneath a bridge underpass “for maybe 10 seconds or so,” showing him a doctored bank statement to back up to his supposed net worth. “We were duped,” New York admitted. The magazine earns a DART for believing the hype.

Loretta who?

A final DART goes to Breitbart News for its absurd response to the fact that the entire premise of its story “outing” Loretta Lynch, nominated by President Barack Obama for attorney general, as one of Bill Clinton’s attorneys in the Whitewater corruption probe, was erroneous. First, wrong Loretta Lynch—Clinton’s attorney by the same name was a California Public Utilities Commissioner. But instead of acknowledging the error and taking down the story, they appended a correction to the bottom of the piece, as though they had simply misspelled Lynch’s name.

Finally, after thousands of shares online, Breitbart took down the article, including the correction, leading readers to a “404-not found” error page. A new story on Lynch that carries the correction remains under a different link—a case study in intellectual honesty.

Chris Ip contributed reporting. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the National Organization for Women as “The National Organization of Women.” 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: