Saturday, February 22, 2014
ABC News received advance warning of Jimmy Kimmel's prank about a wolf supposedly prowling the athletes' village in Sochi but didn't steer other news organizations away from it, the network said Friday. The talk show host's hoax was so realistic that despite the tip, even one of his own network's news websites posted a story suggesting the report was real.
One media ethicist questioned whether a company that includes a major news organization should broadcast a joke that implied security problems at an Olympic Games where concerns about safety have been, and continue to be, a major issue. "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" airs every weeknight on ABC.
Kimmel posted, through USA luger Kate Hansen's Twitter account, a video that depicted a wolf walking in the hallway outside of Hansen's Sochi dorm room. It was nearly 24 hours before Kimmel revealed it was a joke, shot with a rented wolf on a Los Angeles soundstage constructed to look exactly like the hallway outside Hansen's room.
ABC's entertainment division had no immediate comment on whether Kimmel sought approval in advance for the prank, or if anyone questioned whether it was a good idea. The comic has a history of trying to fool the media; last year, he staged a clip of a woman apparently set afire while twerking and posted it online, where news organizations jumped on the story.
An ABC News executive tipped in advance about the Hansen hoax alerted some of the network's shows to stay away from the story, but the word didn't spread widely enough. A network website posted a story for an hour assuming the wandering wolf was real before it was taken down, said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.
Because it was an off-the-record tip, ABC News didn't feel it could report the story before Kimmel revealed it, and didn't believe it had a responsibility to warn other news organizations that they could be disseminating false information, he said.
"The world is seeing these kinds of videos more and more, and every news organization has to do its own reporting and own vetting to decide whether or not they want to print, air or say something," Schneider said.
He added: "It is a piece of comedy. We need to keep that in perspective."
But Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, said the episode says as much about the "bad actors" who spread falsehoods — meaning Kimmel — as it does about the media. The danger, McBride said, is that such incidents add to a growing public distrust of what they can believe in the news.
She was particularly disturbed about Hansen playing along with the joke. "I don't know if we can create a system that is going to screen that," she said. "News organizations that contacted her, they didn't do anything wrong."
One news organization duped was NBC, which holds the rights to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S. On his show Thursday, Kimmel aired a brief clip of Willie Geist reporting on the wolf on the "Today" show. On Friday, Geist said NBC was had by "the great Jimmy Kimmel." He said NBC approached Hansen before running the item, and the Olympian said that "it was me." Her confirmation was key to NBC going with the story, he said.
ESPN, which like ABC is owned by the Walt Disney Co., was not tipped off about the hoax and did not run with the story on its news shows, a spokesman said.
CNN was among the news organizations to broadcast the story, discussing it on the network's morning show. The Associated Press decided not to publish a story after it devoted "significant resources" in Sochi and the U.S. trying to authenticate the video, said Lou Ferrara, the AP vice president and managing editor overseeing Olympics coverage.
"It wasn't just that it was a potentially viral video," Ferrara said in Sochi. "The news was that security may have been breached where the athletes stay. How did a wolf get into a place that was supposedly fortified? Was there a hole in the fence? Were there other weaknesses? How did it get past the guards? Was it even a wolf? These were all legitimate questions in the context of what has been reported about Sochi."
Ultimately, Ferrara said, the story seemed suspicious and other Olympic athletes had raised warning flags to reporters.
Privately, some news executives are angry with the hoax but reluctant to comment publicly in fear of being saddled with an image of being humorless or easily fooled.
"It's not a great situation when a network television program is staging a hoax that victimizes the credibility of other news organizations. That's really dopey," said Bill Wheatley, a former NBC News executive who teaches journalism at Columbia University.
Olympic organizers laughed off the prank and said no disciplinary action was planned. Alexandra Kosterina, Sochi organizing committee spokeswoman said, "It's OK. People are having fun."
The U.S. Olympic Committee refused comment. But a spokesman for the U.S. luge team said Hansen made a poor decision and that American luge officials are remorseful.
"We've found it to be a little disrespectful to the home country organizers," said Sandy Caligiore, a luge team spokesman. "They've done a great job and we've had a wonderful time here."
The luge team seems to have made its displeasure known to Hansen. The athlete told Kimmel, in an interview on his show Thursday, that there had been more of a backlash than she expected, "but it was all worth it in the end."
One website, SBNation, reported on the wolf Thursday but with some degree of suspicion. The site later updated the story to say that it was a Kimmel hoax.
"Moving forward," the website said, "everything is a Jimmy Kimmel hoax unless specified otherwise."