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News or Business?

This was sent to the Public Editor of The New York Times for consideration.  I never got a response and nothing has really changed….

As a reminder, Patrick Fitzgerald was the Special Prosecutor in charge of investigating the “outing” of CIA agent Valerie Plame during the George W. Bush adminstration.

26 October 2005

I would like you, some day, to address a question that I have had for a long time and that I find particularly on my mind in the last week or two:

From a standpoint of journalism and journalistic ethics, at what point does coverage driven by the needs of the news business or the needs of a journalistic career conflict with — or even damage — the legitimate needs of news gathering?

What set me thinking about that topic this week is the incessant and high-profile speculation about what, if anything, Patrick Fitzgerald and his grand jury will do with all the evidence they have been gathering. Such speculation has been at the top of the page at The New York Times, on CNN, at The Boston Globe, and at Salon (those are the ones I follow) and, I presume, at many other publications as well. It seems to be the news story of the week.

But is it really news? Does such speculation fulfill any legitimate journalistic purpose? On its face it might appear so — it involves something important about our government — but I would contend that is only superficial.

The question on this, and on many other stories, is, “What is the hurry?”  When Mr. Fitzgerald makes his final decision and releases it, we will all know and that will be news. Is there really any need for anyone to know sooner? What could we do with that information, especially if it is only speculation and rumor? Is there really any journalistic reason for such reporting or is it merely important because someone thinks it will sell newspapers or win a Pulitzer?

I find myself often thinking about that question during “breaking news” events. To keep the military honest and to learn lessons for later, we all needed to know what happened in Iraq during the invasion — but did we really need to know it in real-time? Was there really any purpose served by that beyond the fact that it captured eyeballs for the news organizations? And to the extent that instant reports are always — almost by definition — so narrowly focused on the details of the moment that they are incapable of bringing in background and perspective, mightn’t they actually be more distorting than illuminating? Mightn’t we all be better informed and better served by less timely and more thoughtful reporting?

We seem to live in an era of instant news. Local television stations send a live satellite truck to the middle of nowhere every time a storm moves in so they can broadcast a “live report” of the fact that it is raining or snowing. Presidential candidates debate each other and five minutes later reporters and pundits are declaring a winner and moving on; by two days later, everyone has moved on and no one is reflecting on what was said in the cold light of day. Plane crashes and car chases are broadcast in real-time. Every Presidential speech or scandal investigation or policy announcement is speculated upon and judged so much before it happens that the actual event is almost an anticlimax. Every natural or man-made disaster in the world is followed within minutes by reporters taking to the airwaves and into print reporting whatever rumor or misinterpretation emerges from the chaos, most of which must be corrected later because it is so inaccurate as to constitute misinformation. And to what end?

I, for one, would rather be well-informed than instantly informed. Should that not be the real goal of journalism?

© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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