Why speed in news is a bad thing
- Published: 16 January 2010
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The internet and 24-hour news channels have led to media organisations becoming desperate to be the first to get a story out there - without it necessarily being edited or checked. This speed can lead to compromises in quality as well as leaving us with 'no time to think', write Charles S Feldman and Howard Rosenberg.
You can blame Al Gore—sort of.
He didn’t invent the Internet, but he was an enabler. It was Gore, when he was a U.S. senator and not yet Bill Clinton’s vice-president, who provided legislative support to help transform what was essentially a private plaything for the military and academia into a worldwide Web available to the masses.
As far back as 1988, Gore had helped introduce legislation to pump money into the National Science Foundation, which spearheaded software developments with the full backing of the U.S. military. “With greater access to supercomputers,” promised Gore at the time, “virtually every business in America could achieve tremendous gains.”
Nice thought, with some truths attached to it. But incomplete vision. What Gore and other early advocates of this technology hadn’t realized was this: The uncurbed rapidity of its fl ow of news and other kinds of information would have unexpected consequences that were benefi cial only to the very few. One of them, for example, was that a teenager would be able to post for the planet to see, in an instant, a video of his chums and him guzzling beers in a contest to see who could upchuck in the shortest time.
More recently, Gore wrote in The Assault on Reason that he puts his trust in the Internet to rescue us from television’s capacity to immobilize reason and stimulate a primitive “visceral vividness” not “modulated by logic, reason and reflective thought.”
The Internet, he argues, “is perhaps the greatest source for hope for re-establishing an open communications environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish.” To which New York Times columnist David Brooks responded, “Has Al Gore actually looked at the Internet?”
Well, get used to this fi reball that Gore and others see as a messiah; think “meteor shower.” Those are the words of Tom Brokaw, the former NBC Nightly News anchor whose long career arcs many epic changes in journalism. “I think we are in the middle of another Big Bang,” he says about the Internet’s exploding growth. “We’ve created this universe in which all these planets are suddenly out there colliding with each other. We are trying to determine which ones will support life, which ones will drift too close to the sun and burn up, which ones will meld with another.
And the effect of it all is bewildering, both to those of us in this end of the spectrum and those who are on the receiving end. It’s a big dilemma and we haven’t given enough thought to the consequences.” Not that contemporary media were beyond reproach prior to the Internet’s cosmic fi ring up for prime time. There had been plenty to complain about for years. Even when Walter Cronkite addressed America from Mt. Olympus way back when, it was the nature of newscasts to skim surfaces and render events equal, like fl ipping cards in a Rolodex. It was 30 seconds of fl uff giving way to 30 seconds of bigger fl uff followed by 30 seconds of global crisis, with no gradations of relative importance.
And Cronkite’s CBS News colleague Eric Sevareid once equated the speed of contemporary TV news with a “spotlight in the darkness. It focuses on what’s moving, and everything else is blotted in the darkness.”
Could it get any worse than that? Possibly. The Internet and 24-hour news channels have built on that situation and escalated it, affi rming technology as both a blessing and a scourge. “Satellites changed everything,” notes Michael Gartner, a former newspaper editor and president of NBC News. “Satellites have made it so you can see the airplane crashing and the dictator being toppled.” And presidents called on the carpet and humiliated? “You could see everything,” Gartner says, “but Bill Clinton getting a blow job.”
And see it all simultaneously. If, in a time warp, Abraham Lincoln had issued his document that freed the slaves in rebelling states in the era of all-news channels instead of in 1863, they would have split the screen, half to him, half to some Hollywood celebrity appearing before a judge or a YouTube video of Clinton indeed being serviced in the Oval Offi ce by you know who .
Priorities have always been a problem for news media, especially for those on the electronic side. Along those lines was a newscast on KCBS in Los Angeles that shamelessly granted a quarter of the screen to one of those routine cops-chasing-fugitive freeway adventures as President George W. Bush addressed the nation live on federal funding of limited embryonic stem cell research. Little did Bush know that while opining on this signifi cant hot-button issue,
he was being undermined in Los Angeles by embryonic intellects at a TV station owned and operated by CBS.
“And then,” says Gartner, “the Internet took it one step further.” If not two or three.
“Isn’t it thrilling,” observes a character in Garry Trudeau’s wonderfully ironic Doonesbury strip, lying in bed in the dark of night. “A roomful of technology in standby mode, ready to leap to life and serve us.”
Technology is wonderful if it’s benefi cial, and where would the news business be without its remarkable advances? In 1481, a letter reporting the death of a Turkish sultan took two years to reach England, Mitchell Stephens writes in A History of News . And in 1841, he notes, it took three months and 20 days for Los Angeles to learn of President William Henry Harrison’s death in the east.
Moreover, beaming events to the multitudes as they happen is indispensable on occasion. Live cameras are peerless when covering some kinds of breaking stories, from massive shootouts and volatile civil disturbances to raging wildfi res, devastating natural disasters, and truly epic catastrophes like the terrorism of 9/11.
You don’t twiddle your thumbs and wait for the morning paper to tell you what happened. You turn on TV or the radio, or, increasingly these days, the Internet.
On the other hand . . .
“The sort of ad absurdum extremity of faster and faster is live,” says Marash. “More and more of the television news networks, particularly the American news channels, have become addicted to the added emotional engagement of live because of its unpredictability and, therefore, the potential for high drama or high intimacy.”
So what’s the problem with this touch of show biz? “When you are live, you literally have no time to reflect and damn little time to think or consider,” Marash says. “So a lot of times we get live coverage with a lot of disorganized information, some of it turning out to be true, some of it turning out to be untrue.
But it has already shaped the discussion; it has already sent that river down stream colored by whatever the first impressions of the live coverage were. So one of our big problems is not so much what people don’t know but the wrong stuff that they think
they do know because they saw it presented in an early pre–first draft.”
What about that old saw about news being the fi rst draft of history? “This precedes even that,” says Marash. “This is often the shocked ramblings that precede the fi rst draft.” Or the raw notes . . . scribbled in crayon.
Live reporting—instant news without safeguards—is the ultimate journalistic gamble, in many cases not only a device to seduce and sucker viewers but more signifi cantly, a risky game. And that game—played ever more by newscasts in the last three decades—is Russian roulette, TV’s high rollers squeezing the trigger and hoping no bullet is in the chamber.
Want a smoking gun? Try this, still vivid in many memories. The year was 1998. And in the quintessential Los Angeles TV story, an obviously disturbed motorist, Daniel V. Jones, was being pursued by a bevy of patrol cars across the city’s freeways when he stopped his truck on an overpass, stepped out without pants and walked around. So edgy, so exciting, so now . Then Jones placed a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, leaving his brains on the
pavement as seven TV stations beamed the full public splatter to their viewers. Live.
Oddly enough, it was a media stunt. However poorly he was thinking, Jones knew TV choppers would be there. Why else would he have prepared a hand-scrawled banner lambasting HMOs and spread it out on the ground near his truck before ending his life?
How did he know that TV choppers would be there? Because it’s TV, dummy, and they’re always there, creating gridlock in the skies while beaming live pictures of freeway chases to inquiring minds with a yen for the instantaneous.
Why do experienced journalists telecast unscreened material in volatile situations? Because they can, and because they are driven by a powerful, rush-to-report herd instinct, the one commanding them to beat or at least keep astride of the competition and not be left behind. Just as their competitors answer the same call of the wild in trying to keep pace with them.
News on TV is driven largely by technology, the human contribution limited increasingly to fl ipping on the switch and letting everything rip. Mostly, events are covered live not because they’re worthy of that coverage but because the equipment to do it exists.
The rule of thumb is to go live not necessarily because it makes journalistic sense but because you have all the toys, all the technological goodies at your command.
“Everyone,” says Keith McAllister, “is doing this at the speed of light.”
This affirms what political philosopher John Gray writes in Straw Dogs : “Technical progress leaves one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.”
This we’ve learned through the years.
Former CNN correspondent Charles Bierbauer recalls what happened when the Philadelphia station he worked for in the mid-1970s acquired its fi rst microwave truck that could beam pictures live from anywhere in town. Station executives were buzzed, exhilarated, hopped up and revved up. Something was wrong with this picture,
though. Instead of using this exciting new technology to support or enhance stories, the station sought to make its new microwave truck the centerpiece of newscasts and design coverage around it.
“Technology gets so far ahead of us,” says Bierbauer, now dean of journalism at the University of South Carolina. “Journalistically, we should be focusing on what the content is and how we use the tools. But the damned tools get in the way.”
These are the power tools that speed up the news and send it out in all directions.
“Never has falsehood in America had such a large megaphone,” John Carroll commented in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece when he was still editor of that paper.
Rob Silverstein, executive producer of the syndicated TV series Access Hollywood, has similar thoughts. “There is so much stuff that’s fi rst but wrong. All these websites are guilty of that,” said Silverstein, vowing to the New York Times that his own show’s website would be different.
The primordial gut urge of media hordes to take off and sprint toward the fi nish line with any baton handed them has not gone unnoticed by those with special agendas. In 2004, partisan TV commercials making unproved charges that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry infl ated his Vietnam War record had a small run in a handful of states. But the accusations, made by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, hit 10 on the Richter scale after relentless media coverage that seriously wounded the candidacy of Kerry, who responded slowly after underestimating the speed and influence of 24-hour news and right-wing radio talkers and bloggers.
In the Spring of 2007, moreover, a Democratic operative, who later claimed he had acted independently, posted at no cost an anonymous YouTube video picturing presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as “Big Brother” from George Orwell’s futurist tale 1984.
A week after airing, the anti-Hillary spot had already been viewed 2.7 million times and played repeatedly on 24-hour news channels, getting millions of dollars worth of free political advertising.
As did attack videos showing Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani in drag (he was doing it as a gag) and Democratic presidential hopeful Edwards, whose expensive coif had been ridiculed by political foes, appearing to primp as he very carefully combed his hair.
So behold the era of McNews: spatulas of information carelessly splattering the hot grease of half-thoughts and half-truths on camera and online, instantly blabbing what is whispered to them or slid under the kitchen door anonymously, creating what journalist Jeff Greenfi eld once called, in another context, a “maelstrom of semi-informed, uninformed windbaggery.”
In earlier times, editors and news directors “had time to digest before disseminating,” says Gartner. “Now it’s regurgitation—fact, rumor, innuendo, often with no context and no distinction between fact and rumor or important fact and irrelevant fact. You have to be a lot smarter to be a news consumer these days than you did a generation ago.” Well, good luck with that.
Packed off for early retirement are cool deliberation and thoughtful discourse, now cobwebbed relics banished to the attic along with hula hoops and old photos from the horse-and-buggy age.
The public’s right to know has been supplanted by the public’s right to know everything, however fanciful and even erroneous, as fast as technology allows.
This can have benefi ts. It was a stinging blogger swarm that, in effect, drove Mississippi Senator Trent Lott from his position as Senate majority leader in 2002 after he had made a speech appearing to endorse his elderly colleague Strom Thurman’s early support for segregation.
Former Virginia Senator George Allen also learned what it was like to be tripped up by technology. His front-running quest to be the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nominee collapsed almost instantly in 2006 when amateur video caught him uttering what many believed to be a racial slur in a speech to supporters.
Yet, for every revealing Lott meltdown or George Allen macaca moment YouTubed through cyberspace, dozens more of these are malicious cheap shots or outright deception, putting pressure on just about everyone. As a consequence, for the media and government leaders pledged to make carefully considered decisions on their behalf, there is literally no . . . time . . . to . . . think.
Speed was not invented by this generation’s technophiles. The rush to report has been in journalism’s bloodstream surely since humankind fi rst felt the itch to pass on information, when prehistoric cave dwellers wrote on walls, early Romans gathered in the forum to hear the latest gossip and roving reporter Herodotus recorded what he saw in his fi fth century B.C.E. travels in lands along the Mediterranean and Black Seas. One can also envision scoop-hungry medieval town criers competing to be the fi rst to report “All’s well!”
This is an extract from No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle by Charles S Feldman and Howard Rosenberg. The book is published by Continuum and available in hardback. Distributed in Australia through Palgrave Macmillan.