Journalistic judgment calls for knowing when you know enough. But if that’s so, is the corollary also true: must reporters and their editors also decide when they don’t know enough? Is there a point at which a news organization shouldn’t publish what it knows?
The question may seem quaint in the era of the 24-hour news cycle and the unsleeping blogosphere, where the pressure is always to publish at once and worry about correcting mistakes later. But the ordeal of Shirley Sherrod, the black government official falsely accused of racism, offers an object lesson in the consequences of a policy of publishing first and reporting afterward.
Most commentators blamed the White House and NAACP for rushing to judgment, without recognizing that Sherrod had been smeared by a notorious rightwing blogger and without checking the accuracy of his report. But there is plenty of blame to be shared–among the news media and the academic enablers of a culture that exalts the blogger as a populist slayer of elitist professional reporting.
As some have pointed out, the Obama administration’s headlong rush to judgment was not an example of a mistake but of a carefully-considered strategy—one that in turn owes its formulation to the new media environment.
Politicians seek to own the news cycle. The lesson they drew from the 2004 Swift Boat campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry is that they must react instantaneously or negative news will dominate for hours or days.
Faced with the spread of the Sherrod video on-line and the prospect that it would soon be on cable news, the administration followed its playbook, ousting Sherrod to get in front of the story.
Howard Kurtz, the influential press critic of The Washington Post, defended Fox News , noting that it didn’t broadcast the truncated Sherrod clip until after she resigned. But Fox and CBS had already posted the clip on their websites, Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly had already called for her to be fired, and Sherrod’s boss instructed aides to move fast because he believed Glenn Beck was going to use the video on air.
So we have a chicken-and-egg situation: politicians react to on-line news or to a story they know is coming; the reaction then becomes news, and the justification for publishing or perpetuating untruths. Media and politics: which is the chicken, which the egg?
Some distinguished academics earn their living by celebrating every layoff in the nation’s newsrooms as they look forward to the day when “the people formerly known as the audience” or bloggers rebranded as “citizen journalists” have supplanted “legacy media.” They have been notably silent about this sorry example of “process” over “product.”
Jeff Jarvis of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism argues that technology changes the standards. “Online, the story, the reporting, the knowledge are never done and never perfect,” he writes. The report can be provisional because unlike a newspaper or broadcast, it can be endlessly corrected and augmented.
“At my school,” he writes, “we say we teach what we call the eternal verities of journalism. But I also try to make sure the students are open to new worldviews and new methods and means of journalism. Those can come from bloggers and from the public we serve.”
It’s a vision that naively assumes that all bloggers are people of good will–or, if they are not, their distortions and falsehoods will be revealed by other bloggers.
A more realistic view comes from the bete noire of the Internet triumphalists–The New York Times–whose columnist David Carr noted that the
Web-enabled system of news . . . was supposed to bring accountability and real-time fact-checking to current events. But the velocity that is the medium’s chief feature is less a tool of efficacy than instigation, in part because both the current administration and mainstream media have developed a hair-trigger response after getting run over by stories that seemed to come out of nowhere.
The wisdom of crowds is no substitute for the wisdom of reflection. It is no substitute for verifying facts, sifting information, uncovering motives. What the Shirley Sherrod episode shows is that our news culture no longer offers the time to get the story right, and–if Jarvis is correct–doesn’t aspire to get it right.