Ken Jennings and Howard Stern Have a Common Enemy: the AP

This isn't the first time this year an entertainment figure has had the AP misrepresent him.
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Ken Jennings, despite the somewhat arrogant persona he projected as he won what seemed like a thousand Jeopardy! games in a row from June to December 2004, is a pretty funny guy. In fact, he has shown he has quite a dry and somewhat cynical sense of humor, as he has been demonstrating on his blog since June.

A particularly funny piece was an open letter he wrote last week to his benefactors at the venerable game show, giving them suggestions to help improve it. For instance, he says they should take the excalmation point off the name of the show: "[T]his is a subtler time. Do you really think that, today, Best Picture Oscars would have gone to Million Dollar Baby! and Crash! ? Certainly not. Change the punctuation and suddenly they look like Blake Edwards movies." It just sounded like he was having goofy fun with the show that gave him all that fame and fortune, sort of along the lines of someone saying "I kid because I love," something he indicated at the end of the post.

But you wouldn't get that impression if you read about it at the Associated Press. "'Jeopardy' champ Ken Jennings blasts game show" was the headline that ran with the AP article, which went on to state that Jennings "has a few unkind words to say about the show." When I saw that, I went back to the blog entry, thinking I read it wrong. But I still didn't see a trace of bitterness or any sense that he was "blasting" the show. But then one of my colleagues at TV Squad posted a note about an article by New York Post entertainmet writer Michael Starr which takes quotes from Jennings' blog entry out of context, then concludes that Jennings was biting the hand that fed him. It made me wonder from where exactly the AP had gotten their story.

So I called the AP to find out. I spoke to Media Relations Manager Jack Stokes and asked if the reporter had read Jennings' blog entry in full. He told me he'd get back to me; within the hour, I got this response from entertainment editor Jesse Washington: "While Jennings' comments are obviously meant to be humorous, his jokes had more than a little bite to them. We tried to reflect that in our story, although our choice of the word 'blasts' in the headline was unfortunate. And we updated the story a few hours later with Jennings explanation of his posting."

Fair enough. But nothing in the original AP story indicated that the piece was humorous. For instance, when they mention his obviously tongue-in-cheek line about how Alex Trebek "died in that fiery truck crash a few years back and was immediately replaced with the Trebektron 4000," they presented it as if Jennings wrote it with deadly serious intentions. The only nod to the fact that it was a humor essay was given by Jennings himself, when they added his reaction from his blog.

This isn't the first time this year an entertainment figure has had the AP misrepresent him: When Howard Stern gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly a few months ago, he half-jokingly mentioned that many members of his old terrestrial radio audience were too cheap to buy Sirius to listen to him. The interview even indicated that Howard laughed when he said it. But according to the AP, Howard was "angry" with these people, even going so far as giving their report the headline "Howard Stern Lashes Out at Some Fans." To me, laughing while you crack a joke is not the definition of "lashing out." It makes no sense in the fuller context of the interview, and it gives me the impression that the AP used the more controversial reported quotes without bothering to check the context, even though the full interview containing the quote was available on-line from the second it was published.

In that case, the AP didn't issue a retraction, clarification, or correction. Nor did they do so in the case of Stephen Colbert, whom they failed to credit with popularizing the term "truthiness" when they reported on the word's selection as Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.

So, what's going on with the AP? Are they in such a hurry to beat bloggers like us to the best news that they don't perform their journalistic duties, especially in the realm of entertainment news? Or are these just three isolated cases of misinterpretation? People trust the AP to give them the straight story, and these three incidents are worrisome to me. Despite the proliferation of instant news in the form of rumor-rife blogs and smoke-blowing pundit shows, people still want something that resembles the thoroughly reported, unvarnished facts that the wire services can bring. Believe it or not, people sometimes still want the truth and not "truthiness."

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