Will the Real Melissa Huckaby Please Stand Up?


The woman on the left is from Manteca, California. That’s very near Tracy, California where the woman on the right, also named Melissa Huckaby, was arrested in the maddeningly hard-to-believe rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl.

Both are single moms, and both around the same age.  One key difference is that the Melissa on the left, although publicly accused of the same crime as the Melissa on the right, is the victim of mistaken identity.

Herein lies a multi-layered problem in journalism, one that could have led to a rush to judgment. But the person writing this now has watched this metastasizing and malignant metamorphosis first hand and learned— never rush to judgment in the rush to air.

Melissa Huckaby on the left was mistakenly identified as the suspect by a local Bay Area television station. An employee in a television newsroom got the name of the suspect and then, apparently, found a picture of a woman with the same name living close to where the killing took place. Proximity her only crime, the Melissa Huckaby on the left used the social networking site—MySpace. Her picture was found there, then put on the air.

The falsely identified woman’s MySpace account is now closed, and she and her family no doubt wonder if or when they can walk Manteca streets safely again.

What the free and likely disillusioned Melissa Huckaby learned in this cruelest of ways is when journalists don’t do their jobs well, lives get broken and innocents harmed. What she likely does not understand is how endemic this problem is in newsrooms across the country, where life altering mistakes happen every day—mistakes that often damage much more than reputations. Some “mistakes” have the power to bring democracy to its knees, leaving citizens without access to diligently checked, thoroughly vetted information from various sources—so they can decide for themselves what to believe.

Hoisted on its own petard, mass-produced corporate media is an animal in a trap willing to chew through its own flesh to survive. But survival is at great expense. Corporate greed, with sales people essentially in charge of newsrooms and the profit motive directing the news, has crippled the Fourth Estate.  Still, citizens limp on—looking for nuggets of truth on-line, in a television news story or the local paper. They often find journalism is collateral damage. Those who dare to practice it in corporate media conduits are often labeled “resistant to change”—the death knell.

Over the last ten years, massive lay-offs damaged journalism’s most important collateral—the people who believe in getting the story straight.

Fact checkers were often the first to go—or the first to quit in protest as newscasts across the country multiplied like gerbils.

“All news all the time” is the new motto of television news: “Quantity over quality.”  Helicopter shots of traffic jams replace reporters with years of experience, and reporters once given time and encouragement to walk the beat with “boots on the ground” in an effort to find truth are now forced to do so many other jobs, it’s humanly impossible not to makes mistakes when compromises are demanded.

Those who stayed for the pension and the health insurance and the paycheck are filled with cold acquiescence. Marching, marching, marching—in conforming stupors. The spirit of a good reporter, the spirit of a revolutionary who questions both the corporate media itself and the government it’s beholden to, are mostly just shadows of their former selves. The owners of most corporate media are too far lost to understand by quelling the spirit of the town criers, they are destroying themselves in a perversely fascinating lemmings-off–a-cliff sort of way.

The internet now makes it possible to ruin a person’s life in seconds, not just locally but across the country.  Newspapers, web sites,  MySpace, Facebook and a myriad of other conduits have the potential of posting the same inaccurate information in the wink of an eye—or a “Poke” in it.

If those attempting to find reliable information are tempted to scream, “That damn so and so media corporation is so irresponsible I’ll never watch, or read or listen to it again!” Good, that’s certainly a start, but misinformation and out and out lies are so pervasive now, it’s not that simple.

About the same time Melissa Huckaby was misidentified in local media, the national media was called on the carpet for a headline that was pejorative, provocative and either a lie or a mistake.  Unfortunately, mistakes are not exclusive to television. Information is now so loose and people have such short, easily forgotten spurts of outrage, the mistakes flow down an ever-widening, ever-darker memory hole. The Fourth Estate in some cases has become a trash compactor, crushing stories into smaller blocks of garbage.

Recently the following conversation took place with a trusted reporter who not too long ago was allowed to help the citizens she serves put stories into perspective with some degree of context and sense of proportion. Now her corporate media company tells her viewers are too stupid to understand hard issues. Now she is told to tell her stories in 20 seconds and write twice as many stories to fill the never-ending newscasts.

My question: “How do you do that? My fingers would have whiplash!”

My friend paused, issued a sarcastic nose snort and said, “I write the story the way I used to, explaining all sides—then I take out the facts.”

To quote a lovely, young, bright, promising television producer who quit in protest over the inability to do her job, “I thought I was going to work for Chez Panisse and I ended up at McDonalds.”

No nutrition, just filler…and sometimes they can’t even get that right. Just ask the Melissa Huckaby on the left.
22 May 09: Leslie writing on this issue caught the attentsion of the Columbia Journalism Review

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