At KTVU, “someone has to go” over Asiana gaffe

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(KTVU press photo)

(KTVU press photo)

As an investigation permeates between KTVU and their parent company Cox Media Group regarding last week’s Asiana Airlines gaffe, the search is on for the staff member who will take the blame for the mistake.

The spotlight is on Lee Rosenthal, the newly-minted news director who assumed his managerial duties in April. Rosenthal replaced outgoing news director Ed Chapuis, who left for unknown reasons three months earlier. According to sources at the station, the replacement came with several operational and procedural changes at KTVU, which caused morale to stoop inside the newsroom and may have been the precursor to the station’s recent mistake that landed KTVU in the national spotlight and eroded its reputation as the Bay Area’s authority in local television journalism.

Rosenthal’s predecessor likely had a better understanding of KTVU’s local legacy. Before joining KTVU in 2003, Chapuis was the news director at Sacramento NBC affiliate KCRA-TV, a highly-revered station with a more formal presentation of news compared to its three competitors. Under Chapuis’ leadership, KTVU and KCRA formed a very strong news partnership, even though their network affiliations and parent companies are different.

On the other hand, Rosenthal joined KTVU from Tribune-owned FOX affiliate WXIN. The station, which serves Indianapolis, places heavy emphasis on their FOX affiliation: The newscast uses FOX News Edge music and graphics, the station bills its news broadcasts as “FOX59 News” and FOX News-produced packages run throughout the newscast.

In contrast, KTVU has always distanced itself from its affiliation with FOX for its locally-produced newscasts. The station uses custom graphics built in-house, national news packages produced by CNN and uses the moniker “Channel 2 News” when referring to its news broadcasts (KTVU’s sister-stations WAWS and KOKI both use the FOX brand in news programming).

But if newsroom sentiment is anything to go by, things are definitely changing inside the KTVU newsroom. There are subtle signs that KTVU may be fortifying more FOX in its news diet (the station recently adopted a blue-and-red color scheme for breaking news graphics, deviating from KTVU’s normal blue-and-gold color scheme), and where the station was once assertive in its news presentation and promotion, it is now aggressive to a fault.

Take, for instance, a memo written by Rosenthal just two days after the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport. Rosenthal was quick to brag that KTVU was first in several ways in its coverage of the incident.

“Being 100% accurate, effectively using our great sources and social media without putting a single piece of erroneous information on our air, is what we are most proud of as a newsroom,” Rosenthal wrote in the lengthy press release trumpeting the station’s accomplishments in covering an aviation disaster that claimed the lives of three people.

The press release was a stark and startling departure from the station’s toned-down self-promotion of the past. Expectedly, the hardly-humblebrag ruffled feathers at competing stations, but it also drew ire among KTVU’s own newsroom employees, who have been less-than-impressed with Rosenthal’s “fist-pumping,” according to one report.

The station was forced to eat its words last Friday when newsreader Tori Campbell misidentified four pilots on board Flight 214 as Captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow (the Associated Press, which KTVU subscribes to, correctly identified the pilots two days earlier). Campbell apologized later in the newscast when the error became apparent, and the station issued several apologies throughout the day when the gaffe went viral online.

For employees at competing stations in the Bay Area, KTVU’s blunder was karma for its earlier self-congratulations, which some saw as tasteless.

“Serves them right for beating their chest about being the first station to report a tragic story where people died,” an editorial employee at a competing TV station told The Desk on June 6. “They’re a laughing stock. A once proud outlet that’s, sadly, lost its way.”

Cox Media Group, the family-owned company that operates KTVU, is now demanding answers. According to San Francisco-based media journalist Rich Lieberman, the company has ordered an internal investigation into the embarrassing Asiana Airlines mistake that has tarnished KTVU’s golden reputation as the authority in Bay Area television journalism.

At the very least, CMG will expect KTVU to put in place redundant measures to ensure that such an obvious and embarrassing blunder does not make it to air again. It is not without expectation or surprise that someone may lose their job over the Asiana error: As an insider told Lieberman, “in the end, someone has to go.”