“Rock star.” This was a term used more than 42 times by media outlets to describe Cory Booker during his successful run in last week’s New Jersey U.S. Senate special election
“AWKWARD.” “Cold.” “Sore loser.” These were all terms used by the media in a viral outburst of coverage concerning a moment during Republican challenger Steve Lonegan’s concession speech where he brushes his wife’s hand off of his shoulder.
“From the looks of it, you’d have thought he’d run against his wife,” opined the New York Daily News. It was a story, that according to a Google News search, generated 373 hits in outlets such as NBC’s The Today Show, BuzzFeed, Mediaite,and NJ.com.
What all of these media outlets failed to disclose is that Lonegan was indeed not running against his wife, but since the age of 14 has been battling an opponent even more formidable than Cory Booker: retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that has left Lonegan legally blind.
In fact, moments after the “brushoff,” Lonegan warmly thanked his wife Lorraine for her support, while turning in the opposite direction of her location – where the rest of his family was standing – to acknowledge her.
Reacting to the media’s coverage of the incident, Eric Bridges, Director of External Relations & Policy for the American Council of the Blind commented: "It would be nice if the media would actually pay attention to the full video to understand that the individual in question was not in a frame of mind to recognize where his wife was. It would be nice if the media would do their job and get things right."
Unfortunately, one of the daily indignities persons with visual disabilities must face, unfortunately became fodder for mockery by a group of reporters who were more focused on getting a quick laugh than on getting the facts right.
According to time stamps, NJ.com--an online collaboration between 11 of the Garden State's major newspapers--appears to have been the first outlet to pick up the story. Responding to reader comments urging the story’s author, Alex Napoliello, to disclose Lonegan’s blindness, he demurred, instead bragging that “since this story went up on NJ.com, I’ve noticed that many other news outlets have picked up the story.”
But unlike the other outlets that picked up the story, a cursory search of NJ.com returns at least 14 previous stories that made note of Lonegan’s disability. Shockingly, Napoliello’s NJ.com piece about the incident in question made no mention of it whatsoever – nor did the other outlets that rapidly picked up on their story.
Enter Matt Drudge. After noticing the viral coverage, the Internet maven quickly linked to a blog post calling out the coverage that “mocks blind Senate candidate giving concession speech.” It sent outlets scrambling to offer clarifications and updates to their stories – and Inside Edition came calling to get the Lonegan family's side of the story.
While the real facts did ultimately emerge, this is a case that represents the astonishing devolution of American political journalism into a three-ring circus where facts take a back seat to entertainment and page views. Reporters will take the time to create animated GIFs, in the hopes of launching a viral meme, but they won’t take the time to pick up the phone and call the subject of a story. Had they done so in this case, they would have gotten the facts correct and spared themselves the shame of humiliating a disabled person.
If you wanted to hand out prizes for pitiful journalism, you could give the Award for Most Exploitative Coverage to Hunter Schwarz of BuzzFeed, who found the time to create no fewer than 12 GIFs aimed at scoring cheap laughs off Lonegan's disability. Mediaite's Josh Feldman, who awkwardly boasted that the GIFs of the moment would live on forever, could take home an honorable mention for lack of self-awareness, and the New York Daily News would collect the Prize for Least Journalistic Integrity, as reporter Adam Edelman stealthily edited his story upon learning of Lonegan's condition without making any public disclosure or apology. NJ.com's Napoliello, who still has not provided any clarification within his story to mention Lonegan’s disability, would find himself in a tough competition for Most Inadequate Correction with Willie Geist and Ryan Osborn of the Today Show, who ran their original story on national TV and issued a meek revision only in print.
Whether they ultimately issued a correction or not, each of the hundreds outlets who immediately picked up on the Lonegan story without bothering to check the facts failed to do its job, and not simply because they exploited a disabled American. With outlets as estimable as NBC now apparently prioritizing cheap laughs over real journalism, this represents a broader failure of the collective media to do basic reporting, only further crippling the integrity of the mainstream press.