David Carr of the New York Times examines a kind of Gresham’s Law of the New Media
David Carr of the New York Times examines a kind of Gresham’s Law of the New Media
Let’s state the obvious at the outset: The Internet is a miraculous medium that makes it possible for people to communicate with each other from almost anywhere in the world, and it makes it possible for news organizations to report the latest news virtually as it happens to anyone who has a computer and Internet access, which is now a gazillion people.
One more obvious point: News organizations place a premium on reporting events first. That’s just the way it is. Intuitively it makes sense. No newspaper would go around boasting “You heard it here second.” I worked for newspapers for 35 years, and I never could overcome the chagrin of being beaten on a story.
Having acknowledged those two points—or, as the current usage goes, “That said”—can super fast be too much of a good thing?
The correct answer is yes. “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have,” the French philosopher Emile Chartier said. Haste, as your mother used to remind you, makes waste. Compressing time frames leads to a kind of intellectual myopia.
The Internet facilitates instantaneous reporting. Even if old-line news organizations, like newspapers, still put stories through their standard editing and vetting process, plenty of new news organizations truncate the process to take advantage of the Internet’s immediacy. What a medium makes possible too often becomes what it makes actual.
When speed is the only or even the primary consideration, the first victim isn’t necessarily accuracy, although that clearly can be the case, but depth. Almost by definition, speed and depth can’t coexist. Thoughtful journalism isn’t something that can be churned out while trying to beat the clock or meet a quota. In depth reporting takes time, and time is exactly what a reporter doesn’t have if speed is the priority.
The Shirley Sherrod disgrace, which wrongly and recklessly defamed her, might be an example of the dangers of too hasty reporting, but it’s a better example of a complete breakdown in reporting that hardly deserves to be called journalism at all. Absent the Internet, the incident may well not have happened.
Not only does news often come too fast in the Internet age, but there’s too much of it and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what’s really important, what’s merely important and what’s irrelevant.
Speed is only one reason why we’re being overwhelmed by “news”. Another reason is the infinite capacity of the Internet.
Newspapers are limited by the number of pages they can print, which is primarily a function of how much advertising is sold, but also press capacity. Television and radio are constrained by time.
If everything is reported in the same breathless way, it can be difficult to judge.
Now, with the virtually infinite capacity of the Internet, information is limitless. No triage is necessary because the space is infinite. Infinite space could be a good thing, an opportunity to present well-reported, in-depth stories. But if a premium is put on speed, getting it first, the opportunity for in-depth reporting is lost. And the unlimited space allows for an indiscriminate display of stories—some, many or all of which may be inconsequential.
The challenge for the reader then becomes to sift through all of that to discover which stories are important and which are not—a challenge that becomes all the more difficult when the reader is presented, as is so often the case with Internet news, with a list of headlines without much difference in emphasis. So the reader, rather than the news organization, has to decide what’s important. That is a service that newspapers provide with their display of news. The reader may not always agree with the newspaper’s judgment, but at least the newspaper is making the effort.
Another characteristic of the Internet is the tendency of Internet news sites to target their reporting to narrow interests aimed at a particular audience rather than the broad range that newspapers and their Internets sites try to attract. Internet sites need to have an identity to attract eyeballs.
A general site, designed to attract a general audience, dilutes the identity. As a result, a reader is forced to go from one specialized site to another in order to read about a variety of topics. The busy reader, having lingered too long at one site or another, may not have time to do that. So it becomes more difficult, rather than less, to stay informed on a broad range of subjects.
With the Internet then, we may know a great deal about what happens in a particular area without knowing why. And, at the same time, because our own time is limited, we may wind up knowing nothing about a great many things that affect us in very real ways—until it’s too late.
What we seem to be trending toward is a news system that threatens to turn journalists into wire service reporters—except that wire service reporters have professional standards. Whether or not the new Internet journalists do is still an open question.
Is it safe for a politician, public official or public figure wannabe to be brutally frank in private anymore? Does the public benefit when any of the above speak candidly behind closed doors expecting that their private remarks will remain private?
The easy answer is yes, the public does benefit. We get a glimmer, albeit second or third hand of what “they” are really thinking rather than the vapid, platitudinous or totally predictable rhetoric we usually get. The expectation of privacy tends to facilitate dialogue.
The Internet, which has revolutionized communication, perversely may at the same time make the closed meeting a thing of the past. That make sound like a good thing—transparency and all—but the case can be made that the lack of privacy kills frank discussion and with it the kind of dialogue democracy depends on.
First a little background.
Back in the old days, which was any time before the Internet, politicians and public officials often let their hair down in private, especially if they were among people they thought they could trust or with reporters who understood the meaning of being “off the record”. That didn’t mean that they were necessarily safe. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz lost his job in 1976 after making a racist remark to a freelance writer for Rolling Stone who had been a high official in the Nixon administration. Butz thought he was among friends. More recently General Stanley McChrystal lost his job as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan after he and his staff make critical remarks about officials in the Obama administration once again in the presence of a writer for Rolling Stone. In McChrystal’s case, the general and his staff apparently assumed that because they were hanging out with the reporter for several days that it was understood that they were off the record.
Then, of course, we have GOP chairman Michael Steele making remarks about the war in Afghanistan’s being President Obama’s “war of choosing” and suggesting that the United States can’t win it. And, to add just one more, we had Virginia’s U.S. Senator George Allen describing a dark-skinned American citizen at one of his campaign rallies in 2006 as “Macaca”. Allen’s remark played a major role in his subsequent election loss.
To dispense with the obvious, all four of the above victims of their own bluntness used poor judgment, as they might say in apology, or—they just fell prey to their own stupidity. To say anything in front of a reporter that one wouldn’t want to say in print is always a mistake.
Michael Steele and George Allen might not have known a reporter was present. And a professional reporter may not have been. We might never have known about either incident but for modern technology.
That’s where the Internet comes in, because now anyone with a cell phone or a video or audio recorder can be a reporter. One no longer needs access to a newspaper, magazine, television or radio station to get the word out.
That still doesn’t let Steele or Allen off the hook. They were speaking in public and had no presumption of privacy and no right to presume it. They either didn’t think a reporter was present or they didn’t understand how boneheaded what they were saying was.
On the other hand, when presidential candidate Barack Obama, speaking before a closed gathering of what were supposed to be his supporters, made a remark about people in small towns who have fallen on hard times clinging “to guns and religion,” he did have and had a right to have had a presumption of privacy. His remark got out because a “citizen journalist” who ostensibly was an Obama supporter recorded his remarks and they were put out on the Internet.
In the days before the Internet, even if someone was in the room when an indiscreet or stupid remark was made, you learned about it third hand, if at all. Access to the media was limited. Now, there are no barriers. Anyone can publish.
Given the state of technology in the world we now live in, it is more than just possible that any sensible public person will think twice about saying anything controversial, even in private, for fear that it will get out—not because someone might blab, because that’s always a possible—but because dissemination no longer is a problem; and as a result, anything that anyone says anywhere about anything can “get out”.
There’s not much we can do about that, and some may not think that it’s a problem. But it seems hard enough already to get politicians, public officials or public figure wannabes to say something candid, honest and/or unpredictable now.
In his June 25 column, David Brooks writes about the “culture of exposure,” He cites as the latest example McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone. The access that McChrystal gave Michael Hastings, the author of the piece, wasn’t, obviously, a good idea from the general’s point of view. It seems safe to predict that it will be a while before any general, admiral or high-ranking officer will again speak with anything remotely approaching frankness to a reporter. As Brooks points out, the net effect of this episode will be to drive public officials deeper underground where the public won’t know what they’re thinking or doing.
Now, with the advent of citizen journalists armed with digital video cameras, recorders or smart phones coupled with the Internet, the barrier to publication is gone.
The added chilling effect presented by the Internet’s capability to spread information virally may only aggravate an already lamentable situation. We may hear what we want to hear, but will we be able to know what we need to know?