WGN, Crain’s rush to get Hastert sentence all wrong

Steve Sanders, Dina Bair and Paul Lisnek (WGN, April 27, 2016)

Steve Sanders, Dina Bair and Paul Lisnek (WGN, April 27, 2016)

In the rush to be first, they got it wrong. Way wrong.

Well before Judge Thomas M. Durkin handed down a 15-month prison sentence to Dennis Hastert, multiple Chicago media outlets broadcast and posted inaccurate reports Wednesday that the former U.S. House speaker would serve no jail time.

The error apparently occurred when some reporters misunderstood Durkin’s reference early in his remarks to two years of “supervised release” for Hastert after his prison term for paying hush money to cover up sexual abuse from decades ago.

Several television stations seemed initially confused, but none compounded the mistake as aggressively as WGN-Channel 9. For close to an hour, the Tribune Media station’s midday news anchors, Steve Sanders and Dina Bair, discussed, dissected and disparaged the “no jail time” angle with in-studio news analyst Paul Lisnek, an attorney. Lisnek repeatedly called it "the luckiest day of Hastert's life” for avoiding prison.

Even as competing stations and social media accounts began questioning WGN’s rush to inaccuracy, “Chicago’s Very Own” wasn’t backing down from its own “Dewey Defeats Truman” debacle.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for WGN later said: “We regret the error and updated our story as soon as we had the most current information.”

Crain's Chicago Business

Crain's Chicago Business

While Durkin was still leading up to pronouncing Hastert’s sentence, Crain’s Chicago Business headlined on its alert: “Dennis Hastert is not going to prison.”

“We realized pretty quickly that we had sent out some inaccurate information and corrected that as soon as we possibly could,” said Craig Newman, assistant managing editor for daily news and digital operations for Crain’s. “We regret that there was an error made.”

Mistakes weren’t limited to local media. CNN Breaking News ran with the “supervised release” no jail time story online and still had it wrong more than 10 minutes after the actual sentence was handed down.

CNN later tweeted: “This earlier tweet gave incomplete information. Hastert sentenced to 15 months in prison in addition to 2 years supervised release.”