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Exclusive: NTSB intern at center of KTVU gaffe identified

The Facebook profile (now deleted) of former NTSB public affairs intern Alexander Fields-Lefkovic. (Photo: The Desk/Facebook)
The Facebook profile (now deleted) of former NTSB public affairs intern Alexander Fields-Lefkovic. (Photo: The Desk/Facebook)

The National Transportation Safety Board has relieved a student of his internship after an embarrassing mistake involving a California television station and a plane that crashed at San Francisco International Airport last week.

The Desk has learned exclusively from multiple sources that Alexander Fields-Lefkovic, a junior attending Cornell University, was relieved of his internship duties on Friday after erroneously confirming to television station KTVU-TV the identities of four pilots aboard Asiana Airlines Flight 214, which crashed at San Francisco Airport on July 6.

KTVU reported the names — Captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow — after “confirmation” from an “official” at the NTSB in Washington. That “official” turned out to be Fields-Lefkovic, whose job duties as an intern with the public affairs office involved routing media inquiries received to appropriate parties at the agency.

NTSB Public Affairs Director Kelly Nantel told The Desk by email that the office had brought on three volunteer interns for the Summer 2013 term. Nantel would not confirm that one of those three interns was Fields-Lefkovic.

However, multiple sources who did not wish to be identified did confirm to The Desk that Fields-Lefkovic was the intern who answered the call from KTVU. Profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn accessed by The Desk on Friday also identified Fields-Lefkovic as a public affairs intern with the NTSB.

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Alexander Fields-Lefkovic’s former LinkedIn profile, now removed.

Fields-Lefkovic told The Desk on Friday that he had no knowledge of the incident involving KTVU. A short time later, his Facebook and LinkedIn profiles were deleted.

After the gaffe went viral, KTVU issued an apology on its website, only to remove it and re-issue it two hours later.

“KTVU realized the names that aired were not accurate and issued an apology later in the newscast,” the statement read. “The correct names of the pilots in the cockpit were Lee Gang-guk and Lee Jeong-Min.”

“Nothing is more important to us than having the highest level of accuracy and integrity,” KTVU General Manager Tom Raponi wrote. Raponi said the station “took immediate action to apologize both in the newscast where the mistake occurred, as well as on our website and social media sites.”

Contrary to their statement, KTVU waited four hours before addressing the issue on their social media profiles. On Twitter, KTVU apologized for what it called a “hoax” and during the station’s 5:00 p.m. newscast anchor Frank Somerville echoed the apology that had been issued earlier in the day.

The Desk emailed two managers at KTVU with questions regarding the incident. Those emails went unreturned.

The gaffe came several days after the station trumpeted its breaking news coverage of the plane crash, calling out rival KGO-TV in the process for failing to maneuver its helicopter over the scene in time.

“KTVU’s coverage was even picked up by the ABC National News – instead of their own affiliate (KGO),” the press release read. “The ABC National News repeatedly used aerial footage from KTVU NewsChopper 2 during their 30 minute Special Report. KGO didn’t hit the air with local coverage until 1:11pm – 58 minutes later than KTVU.”

KTVU said their coverage was “100% accurate” and prided themselves for delivering effective reporting “using our great sources and social media without putting a single piece of erroneous information on our air.”

Since the station’s gaffe on Friday, Asiana Airlines has expressed interest in taking legal action against KTVU, claiming its reputation was “badly damaged” by the report.

Asiana Flight 214 crashed upon landing at San Francisco International Airport on July 6. The plane, carrying 307 passengers and crew total, was being dismantled on Friday after a lengthy investigation by federal officials.

Three people died as a result of the crash, which is still under investigation.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).