Imperial, California - Picture a scene, oh, about 10,000 years ago. Ugga Ugga, Bam Bam, and Grunt Grunt are sitting around the campfire roasting a goat or whatnot and going over the events of the day. Grunt Grunt notes that the watering hole is drying up and game are becoming scarce. Bam Bam wonders whether they have offended the gods in some way. They retire for the night, mulling things over. The next morning they hit upon the idea of human sacrifice as a way of appeasing the gods, and that night there are only two guys sitting around the campfire. Ugga Ugga has taken one for the team. The food supply stretches farther and all is well.
That is what passed for news, public discourse and the deliberative process then. Now, fast forward to the 20th century. Society, perhaps surprisingly, has grown exponentially. Jobs have specialized. People still exchange information and views over campfires, clotheslines and water coolers, but in addition there’s this new profession called journalism. Its practitioners are expected to get their facts straight. The system is far from perfect, but it beat what had come before.
Future historians probably will note that this period began its decline in 1998. That is the year when a “new media” website reported on a rumor of a rumor, posting a brief unsourced story claiming that some other reporter was on the trail of a White House intern who might have done the deed with the president. Publication of the rumor put it “out there,” which in the minds of out-maneuvered Old Media execs was enough for them to “go with the story.” To borrow a phrase from the late Pat Paulsen, the scurrilous unconfirmed allegations turned out to be rumors of the worst sort—true rumors. With the notable exception of a few scholars, most journalists put aside any qualms they might have had about the provenance of the story and then proceeded, in the words of Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, at warp speed. The Age of Shoddy, as it pertains to journalism, had arrived.
We have not slowed since. Sadly, awful rumors often do turn out to be true. New Media execs quickly learned that the public clamors for them, wants to hear about them now, and quickly forgets and forgives those reports that turn out not to be true. In self-defense, more and more Old Media practitioners began adopting the same standards—or more to the point, abandoning the old ones.
Recent example: In November, headlines exploded across the Internet that FSU quarterback Jameis Winston had been “accused” of point shaving. The claim burst into public view on a celebrity gossip website not primarily known for its journalistic values, in a post that did not present the least shred of evidence. But major news and sports organizations that should have known better—and in the old days, would have—ran full tilt with the story. Some attributed the accusations to the aforementioned gossip website, while others cited only “sources” and “media reports.”
One TV story started with a standup in which the reporter actually said this, out loud: “First of all, I want to emphasize this is only a rumor. There are no facts here.” The reporter then proceeded to ask FSU students whether they believed Winston had shaved any points. Think about that spectacle for a moment: a news reporter, whose job it is to check out the facts before putting them on the air, asking members of the public whether they think a rumor is true.
I participated in a college comedy skit in 1980 featuring a fictional news organization called “Rumor-Has-It News.” The idea that a respectable news organization would trumpet rumors as news was considered the height of hilarity. That was then.
This, most definitely, is now. As it turns out, the rumor in the Winston case came from a gambling-oriented website run by some random schmo who doesn’t even give his real name—which totally explains why virtually all of the news stories pointed only to “sources” and “media reports” as the origins of the allegations. Yes, friends and neighbors. The reporters you know and trust get their “news” today from the likes of guys named Incarcerated Bob.
The point, of course, is not whether Winston did or did not shave points. The point is that we journalists used to ask questions like that before we published our stories. But the New Media we’re competing against don’t observe such niceties. And increasingly, no longer do we.
Back in Old England, citizens came to realize that the act of charging someone with a crime is, in and of itself, incredibly damaging. To guard against abuse, they came up with a grand jury system under which charges were vetted in total secrecy, with the idea of nipping in the bud anything that seemed ungrounded, capricious, or malicious. Traditional journalism used to have a similar procedure. Editors knew that no story calling someone a dastardly so-and-so should see the light of day without some actual reason to believe that the charges were firmly grounded. Newsrooms worked this out through a quaint practice called “the editorial process.”
But now we traditional practitioners find ourselves assailed on all sides by New Media, whose main value is “get it out there now”—and rather than trying to beat them, too often we’re joining them. The Winston case is just one example. The Rolling Stone gang rape debacle is another. But this kind of thinking is everywhere. In recent years I have watched web editors and assignment desks become more and more prone to publish anything and everything that comes into their newsrooms, especially if it’s already been posted or tweeted elsewhere. The standard became: he or she who publishes first wins, and then, whether it’s true or not, the story is “out there” and we can all “go with it.” Too many of us have been responding to the general loss of standards by losing our minds. In our panic to find a way to compete in this environment, we’re skidding toward abandoning faith in ourselves, our profession, and—even more importantly—the public.
I used to kid myself that we in the old guard could win this fight by standing our ground and holding to our standards. I no longer think that is true. The question now, I believe, is not whether we can win but whether we can we survive, and in the process remain relevant.
Nor do I believe citizens can or ever will be able to resist the temptation of immediately clicking on those alluring, titillating morsels of juicy gossip, or turning to watch those big red “breaking news” banners our industry constantly throws at them (I just watched a major national TV news organization frame as “breaking news”—complete with a lurid, angry banner—the fact that police were preparing for New Year’s Eve in Times Square, which was 28 hours away. But I digress). But think what our society would look like if there were no place where citizens could learn whether the rumors they’re hearing are true, or whether the loud opinions that assault their ears from all quarters are grounded in any sense of logic or reality.
Without such a resource, we’d be right back to that 10,000 year old camp fire. And that scenario didn’t work out so well for everyone. Look at what happened to poor Ugga Ugga.
Traditional journalism may be an endangered species—but it hasn’t gone the way of the passenger pigeon just yet. If you are a journalist, then as 2015 gets underway ask yourself this question: what kind do you want to be? I hope you will be the kind for whom the ideals of fairness and accuracy still mean something. I further hope that if you are not lucky enough to work in a newsroom with similar values, that you’ll find a way, and the courage, to network with your coworkers to make a positive difference.
If that describes you, then here’s to ya. May 2015 bring you great personal and professional success. It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re all depending on you.
Forrest Carr is a former TV news director who’s currently writing novels and blogging. You can find his musings on The Bashful Bloviator Blog.