Thanks to viral video, local news anchors can become international punching bags.
TV anchor Annie Stensrud, who has spent her young career bouncing from one small Midwest market to another, finally landed some national exposure. But it's not the kind anyone would crave.
Stensrud stumbled and bumbled her way through Sunday's late-night KEYC news in Mankato, causing producers to yank her off the air during the first commercial break.
Before the Internet, that episode would have been fodder for regional gossip, then forgotten. But since a video clip was posted to YouTube Tuesday, Stensrud has become a coast-to-coast punch line with more than a half-million page views. The Huffington Post, Gawker.com and even London's Daily Mail speculated that she was intoxicated. David Letterman made it the topic of his nightly list Thursday: "Top Ten Signs Your Local News Team Is Drunk."
Stensrud issued a brief apology late Thursday, saying she had been sick and on medication, but it was too late to stall the wave of tweets and Internet jokes that have made her the latest casualty of the viral-video age, where odds are increasingly slim that a public misstep will go undocumented. The trend has even spawned a cottage industry of experts who do damage control for public figures.
The Mankato station's initial silence did nothing to tamp down the controversy. KEYC managers tried to limit their exposure by saying it was an internal personnel issue. They aired a short statement on Wednesday's news calling the incident "uncharacteristic."
News director Dan Ruiter sounded weary as he spoke a few minutes before that newscast: "We've only got a staff of 16, so you get to know people well. We're family. You're my last phone call before I go to my son's Cub Scout meeting. It's the first time I'm looking forward to being around 10 screaming first-graders."
Stensrud did not respond to an interview request. General manager Dennis Wahlstrom did go public Friday, telling WCCO radio that the anchor had not been drunk, but he declined to talk about her illness.
Facing the fire
Owen Tripp, an expert on damage control in this viral age, pinpoints the start of the trend to 2006, when an old clip of Bill O'Reilly losing his temper as anchor of "Inside Edition" made its way to a new sensation called YouTube.
The Fox News host defused the controversy by directly addressing it on his show, poking fun at himself and telling viewers, "I have much newer stuff."
Tripp advises Stensrud to do the same.
"That doesn't mean a denial, but she's got to draw attention to herself in another way quickly, otherwise that clip will be linked to her forever," said Tripp, cofounder of the Silicon Valley-based Reputation.com. "It could be the difference between a reporter going from Mankato to Chicago to her going from Mankato to the Yukon Territory in Canada."
Allison Frailich, who does crisis-management work for the Minneapolis PR firm Tunheim Partners, agreed on the need for immediate action, and advised the station to respond in the same format as the offending clip -- an Internet video.
Retired WCCO anchor Don Shelby knows something about being embarrassed on the air. In 1980, he showed up drunk to work and almost lost his job.
For the next 18 years, news director Ron Handberg kept a tape of that broadcast ready to pull out if Shelby went off track. Today, that video wouldn't stay hidden in a desk drawer.
Shelby said the humiliation forced him into sobriety, but he's frustrated by the kind of potshots that bloggers tack on to such clips.
"To laugh at someone in this kind of dilemma is the same as laughing at someone attempting suicide on television," he said.
Gossip website Gawker.com speculated that Stensrud was drunk -- or just being Minnesotan ("most Minnesotans talk funny and have difficulty forming simple thoughts").
Reached later by e-mail, Gawker staffer Max Read didn't apologize for taking an irreverent tone in what could be a serious matter.
"For better or worse, a lot of the stuff we write about -- everything from odd crime stories to celebrity gossip -- probably involves substances," he said.
It's much easier to laugh at bloopers in which no one appears to be in any trouble.
KARE sports anchor Eric Perkins still laughs at a clip last spring in which he appears to have fallen asleep during a weather update. Perkins insists the bit was staged and taken out of context, but that didn't stop the video from making him look foolish on Failblog.org and CNN's "Anderson Cooper's 360."
"I don't regret it, but it does make you think twice about doing something on live TV in this viral age," he said. "We are absolute fodder for this sort of thing and we have to watch our step."
ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, who has made such blunders a staple of his monologue, said he's drawn to these clips because they break from newscasts' "artificial quality."
"We get a glimpse of a real person, not unlike the first time you hear your mother curse."