On the surface, the confusion surrounding Diane Sawyer's exclusive "sit down" interview with Gabrielle Giffords for ABC News sound like a Borges short story. Announced Monday, the hour-long primetime television special slated for broadcast on November 14 will coincide with the publication of Giffords's memoir, and with the ABC News calling the event a "broadcast exclusive," it seemed like Sawyer had nabbed the first on-camera interview with the congresswoman since she was shot on January 8. Despite dozens of outlets reporting it as such, Dylan Smith, a local reporter in Tucson, made an important clarification: Giffords's first broadcast appearance might not actually include an on-camera interview.
There are a few troubling elements of ABC's framing of the Giffords special, the most prominent of which is the resulting assumption that Diane Sawyer is hawking an interview and building buzz around an interview that she doesn't even have. Let's compare some wording. In reporting on ABC's press release about Sawyer's exclusive, Smith called the congresswoman Giffords' spokesperson Mark Kimble to clarify whether or not there would be an actual on-camera interview. Smith told The Atlantic Wire:
I made the call to Mark Kimble prior to posting our initial take, but he was on another call (I'm assuming, but not positive it was a conference call re: the faulty AP report) and promised to call right back. I hadn't seen the complete press release at that point, and from the quotes I did see it strongly implied that there was to be on-camera interview. …
I don't cast any aspersions on those reporters who read the ABC release as an announcement of an on-camera interview. That's clearly what it was meant to imply. But, while the old j-school adage "If your mother says she loves you, check it out" is perhaps a bedraggled cliche, perhaps there's still a nugget of truth in there to which we should all pay a bit more attention.
From the wording of ABC's press release, it's easy to see why clarification was needed. "In a landmark television event, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Space Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly will share their remarkable story for the first time since the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011," reads the release, emphasis ABC's.
However, ABC did not have an on-camera interview. Smith ultimately reported:
"Congresswoman Giffords has not decided if she's going to conduct an on-camera interview," said Mark Kimble, her spokesman. Sawyer will interview Kelly on camera, and "sit down and talk with Mark and Gabby" off camera, Kimble said. Giffords will make a decision on an interview "at some point, based on her progress" in rehabilitation, he said.
Brian Stelter and Julie Bosman at The New York Times and apparently about every other newspaper in the country only clarified the difference after reporting on an interview. "ABC did not call it an interview," Stelter wrote in an update to his original post that claimed Giffords would appear on camera. "But media reporters, accustomed to receiving similar ABC announcements about interviews, called it that--leading Ms. Giffords' spokesman, Mark Kimble, to clarify."
In a familiarly backwards manner--and this is where it gets Borgesian--ABC's misrepresenting the Giffords interview has actually built even more buzz about the event, a manufactured buzz that folds back onto itself. At the time of this posting, ABC had failed to clarify that Giffords might not appear on camera, and the Associated Press was reporting vaguely that "the extent of her participation will depend on how well she's recovered by then." Meanwhile, other ABC properties are reporting similarly misleading announcements.
The whole thing seems pretty tasteless. But at this point, we don't really look at ABC as a leader in ethical journalism.
Correction: An earlier version of this post suggested that Smith also misreported the story and Congresswoman Giffords' office called in a correction. In fact, Smith requested more details about ABC's press release. We've updated the post and included some of Smith's comments about the exact chronology.