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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

NBC's Pledge Gaffe

Any reporter and editor has been there before – letting something slip through on the air or in print that came back to bite them. But NBC did it in spades this past weekend – its editorial processes failing twice – in its coverage of the U.S. Open Golf Championship at the Congressional Country Club in suburban Washington, DC.

A pre-taped "open" to the network's tournament coverage featured the taped recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by a group of elementary school children. The problem came about after-the-fact when someone at NBC edited out "under God" and "indivisible" from the pledge. The emotional and music-filled segment included a video tribute to America's soldiers and to the nation's capital as the pledge was being recited following host Bob Costas' dramatic introduction to the tournament's final day. The resulting firestorm of protest on Twitter and other social media platforms after the pledge segment aired prompted an on-air apology from NBC later in the broadcast.

Interestingly, the wording of the apology itself prompted more protest. At CommCore, we advise our crisis response clients to be extra careful not to add fuel to a fire when issuing an explanation or apology when admitting a mistake. Part of the NBC statement read as follows: "[The editing] was not done to upset anyone, and we'd like to apologize to those of you who were offended by it." Several commentators and bloggers responded that the implication was that NBC intentionally removed the words specifically to placate what they called its liberal-leaning audience.

That the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and did not appear in the original Pledge as written in the 19th Century, is not really the issue here. What's at issue is the judgment and credibility of a broadcast network. The program was a sporting event, not a program about government and religion. The personal views of the editor or producer, or NBC's corporate views (if any) on the legitimate but contentious constitutional debate over the separation of church and state, should not have entered into the taped lead-in to a sporting event. And the wording of the apology only made matters worse.

What do you think of NBC's decision to edit the Pledge? What communications lessons can you draw from the incident, as well as from the wording of NBC's apology?

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