Sob Stories: Read 'Em Too Close And Weep

It seemed for a moment over the weekend that the blogosphere had claimed one more victory over the mainstream media, but reaction to Aaron Broussard's return to NBC's "Meet the Press" shows a deep split of opinion over his comments – and the role bloggers have played.

You remember Broussard, the president of New Orleans' Jefferson Parish, from his September 4th appearance on the same show. His weeping tale of the death of a colleague's mother was among the more emotional punctuations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and seemed to encapsulate the growing frustration with the government's response. But no sooner had the appearance become embedded as part of the story's overall fabric, bloggers began picking it apart.

MSNBC has the chronology and details of the story the way Broussard originally told it – and the way it actually occurred. According to Broussard's colleague, Thomas Rodrigue, his mother, Eva, did die at a nursing home but the chronology and circumstances were different than Broussard's version. So it was no surprise the story would be revisited when Broussard returned to the show yesterday, or that more fireworks followed.

Broussard appeared shocked after "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert re-played his earlier emotional moment, apparently asking someone off camera, "I've never watched this. Why are they taking me here?" He then added: "Sir, I've never looked at that. I've never heard that. I'm sorry. You take me to a sad place when you let me hear that." You can read the transcript here.

Russert explained the reasoning behind his questioning:

"Mr. Broussard, the people who are questioning your comments are saying that you accused the federal government and the bureaucracy of murder, specifically calling on the secretary of Homeland Security and using this as an example to denounce the federal government. And what they're saying is, in fact, it was the local government that did not evacuate Eva Rodrigue."

Broussard responded, in part, by saying: "Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles."

Russert then ended the interview by thanking Broussard for "coming on and correcting the record and putting it in context." But it hardly cleared the issue up for bloggers. Instead of another round of back-slapping for getting a major news organization to "correct the record," the blogosphere launched into a heated debate over their role in this story – and the importance of the facts being debated.

Jeff Jarvis writes:

"This turned into a game of factual gotcha and in the process some lost sight of the real story and the real tragedy and that is by far the greater failure."

More Jarvis:
"Too much of journalism is turning this way today: If we nitpick the facts and follow some rules some committee wrote up, we'll be safe; we're doing our jobs. No, sir, our job is to get more than the facts. Anybody can get facts. Facts are the commodity. The truth is harder to find. Justice is harder to fight for. Lessons are what we're after.

Tim Russert lost sight of the story because he was embarrassed that bloggers caught a guest on his show with facts that were wrong. Russert's proper response should have been to fix those facts quickly and clear but still pursue the real story. Instead, he chose to shoot the messenger who embarrassed him with the bloggers. He lost sight of his real mission."

Brian Oberkirch weighed in with:
"Bodies yet to be retrieved & buried, folks hanging from their own rafters holding on the lives, literally, by their fingertips -- and pundits, bloggers and media types were already well on their way to converting the storm into an object lesson for their own rhetorical strategies."

David Weinberger added:
"It was an ambush. It was an attempt to discredit the story's teller in order to deny the story's meaning. It was contemptible."

But Captain Ed responds:
"One could excuse it in the first instance, especially if his staff got the story wrong as he implies in a portion of his response, but this appearance is now three weeks past the emergency. He has had time to get his facts straight and to act responsibly. Broussard just proved once again that Louisiana has to take some responsibility for the disaster just in the competence of the people they elected to office in their local and state government."

It's clear the tone of this debate revolves largely around issues of blame. Whether you put the onus on the federal government or the local and state officials for the less-than stellar response to Katrina will probably determine where you come down on the Broussard story. But there are more important points to be made here.

Can something be factually flawed and still be an important part of the bigger story? How important is it for the media to correct such stories, and does it change anything when it occurs? The New Orleans Times-Picayune picks up on the theme advanced by the New York Times' David Carr last week about stories we all heard about that turned out to be untrue. Tales of atrocities and emotional breakdowns on national TV make a definite impact on people's attitudes, which in turn help shape future policy. Can such impressions ever be revised in the face of new information? And what is the duty for the media to do so?

It's an interesting debate that we surely haven't seen the end of. But clearly, a story with factual inaccuracies should never be excused just because it appears to point to a bigger truth. Respect for facts is a standard that must be a line in the sand as long as journalism purports to report the story.