The Washington Post (reg. req.) publishes an op-ed by Prof. Chris Hanson of the College of Journalism at the Univ. of Maryland critical of the effects that the increased speed of the news cycle is having (The 'Scoop' Heard 'Round the World. Sadly.):
The very speed at which information -- or what passes for it -- comes at us is a big part of the problem. In 1857, the sepoy cartridge rumor appears to have spread slowly among Indian regiments, largely by word-of-mouth, over a period of months. In the wired world of 2005, by contrast, Newsweek's story zipped from modem to modem and then from radio broadcast to mosque, quickly igniting unrest that had simmered just below the surface. By the time the denials and retractions caught up, belief in the Koran abuse was probably too deeply rooted in the Muslim world for much skepticism to penetrate.
Um, is speed really the problem here? How would this story have played out pre-internet? Might the story have essentially been forgotten in the U.S., only to gain new prominence when, weeks later, it was picked up by demagogues in Afghanistan and Pakistan to spark riots? It is still likely that the riots would have happened, right? Is it really the speed
of the internet that is the problem or the fact that it makes information more readily available? Maybe there wouldn't have been riots because so few in the Middle East would have access to Newsweek
without the internet, but in that case, it isn't speed that is the problem, it is distribution and a journalism professor isn't going to argue against the spread of information, is he?
In any case, isn't this another version of the saying attributed to Mark Twain that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"? But doesn't the internet change this to some extent? After all the Killian Memos Affair (aka "Rathergate") shows the power of the internet to counteract falsehoods. Before the internet it would have taken much more time for critical analysis of the memos to have come to light, if it ever did. Oh, wait ... apparently not.
Hanson complains about the speed of the news cycle, but in what should be a leisurely op-ed piece publishes some interesting takes on the Killian Memos Affair:
Information hurtles back and forth so quickly that fact, rumor and conjecture seem to blur -- especially when bloggers with political agendas get into the act. Conservative bloggers pounced quickly to discredit the documents then-CBS anchor Dan Rather relied on last fall in his infamous report about President Bush's National Guard performance. Cyber-debate then moved on briskly to other things. Many people think the documents were proven to be forgeries and the gist of the report false. But in reality, no one has demonstrated conclusively whether the documents are fake, or whether or not Bush disobeyed orders to shirk flight status as alleged.
No one has demonstrated conclusively whether the documents are fake? Please. We have several documents written over a period of more than a year that don't match the type style of any documents of known provenance, or any documents from the same military unit of the era. The documents are casually written, yet contain relatively sophisticated type setting that is rare for the era and took significant effort to employ. Furthermore, in a coincidence that is far too amazing to point to anything but falsity, the documents show near perfect alignment (even highly sophisticated center alignment) with documents produced on a modern, common word processor's default settings. Strangely, none of the other documents of known provenance from the era show the same amazing alignment properties.
At this point it is Hanson, the trained journalist, who is spreading rumor and conjecture, since claiming that the documents aren't conclusively forgeries means that they may, in fact, be quite real documents of the era. Heck, claiming that the documents aren't conclusively forgeries makes conjecture look bad. Gee, I wonder if Hanson has a political agenda?
But that's not all:
Bloggers also set the pace when CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan came under fire last year for allegedly asserting, at a conference not covered by the news media, that U.S. soldiers had deliberately shot journalists in Iraq. Jordan insisted he had meant only that soldiers had been reckless, shooting at targets they did not know were journalists. But outrage spread so quickly over the net that Jordan resigned -- and the top story moved on -- before anyone could verify exactly what he had said. There were plenty of eyewitnesses with different versions of what he said, but there was no transcript, and to this day the issue remains murky.
No transcript? Well, maybe not, but there was a videotape. However, the conference organizers refused to release it. Jordan never called on the conference organizers to release the tape in order to clear his name and show that he did not say what his critics claim. Which is really too bad, given that the issue remains murky to this day. It is still not too late for Jordan to call for release of the recording. I'm waiting...waiting...waiting...
Once again, even though Hanson had the leisurely time for an op-ed he apparently didn't do all the checking one might expect. Either that, or he is being deliberately misleading.
Cyber-pace journalism plays havoc with subtlety, precision, distinctions, qualifications and consistency. The tempo demands simple ideas and crude story lines.
Well, we've seen what old-fashioned leisurely op-ed writing does for Hanson's journalism, why must he accuse cyber-pace journalism of the same?
Actually, his criticism seems more apt of television and the mass media than the internet. Isn't it television and mass media that demand simple ideas and crude story lines? How precise and qualified can a minute or two of a broadcast be? Which is more subtle, television or the internet?
Another simple-for-cyber story line was "Newsweek Wrong!", trumpeting the administration's angry, full-bore denial/condemnation of the magazine's account, which it called "irresponsible" and "demonstrably false." "They cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or to those who were viciously attacked," McClellan said.
Hmmm...soundbites. Was McClellan speaking for blogs, which would parse the living hell out of his statements in plaintext, or television, which would show McClellan speaking from a position of authority in front of an impressive-looking podium and the White House logo behind him? Simple-for-cyber my ass. Simple-for-television more like.
By the same token, as Brian Montopoli noted in a CJR Daily posting, news outlets reported that Newsweek had issued a full retraction.
And where was this posting? Does CJR publish treeware on a daily basis? Or, perhaps, this was a not-so-simple-for-cyber version of the story?
Rumors and half-truths are most likely to take on the guise of solid fact when there is a dearth of information about a compelling topic. Twenty-four-hour cable news has made the problem far worse, especially when a compelling story is breaking and the cable news channels feel obliged to cover it around the clock, with little of substance to report.
Wait a minute, I thought it was this cyber-pace journalism that was the problem? Is it 24-hour cable or cyber-pace journalism that is at issue?
When released Guantanamo detainees declared months ago that they had seen interrogators put Korans in toilets, media gave their claims wide and prominent circulation, even though it was impossible to verify them. It seems that if you can't report solid facts, you can at least report assertions. It was their claims that helped make the Newsweek story seem plausible. Unfortunately, many in the audience regard unverified assertions as gospel, just as sepoys knew with certainty that the British had defiled their cartridges.
Hold on a moment here. It's the audience
that is the problem now? Can't Hanson keeps his villains straight? First, it's the pace of information (although why the pace is at fault is never clear). It is cyber-pace journalism that leads to crude storylines, which is shown by citing television soundbites. Then "cyber" morphs into "cable" as the 24-news channels get blamed. Now it is the audience that can't distinguish between asserted stories and verified ones? Geez.
And what does Hanson propose to do about these unverified assertions, given that the government is highly reticent to verify? Should the press simply ignore the claims?
So take your lumps, Mike [Isikoff], then go back out and nail this story down.
Well, okay, then. Glad we got that straightened out. Just nail the story down. Great advice. Never would have thought of that.