The industry of professional journalism took several significant hits in 2009, but I think the episode that deserves the most criticism is the one that occurred in October, when the media got a fair share of mud in its eye following a fake press conference orchestrated by a social activist group posing as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
On the morning of October 19, a short press release went out to dozens of journalists declaring that the Chamber would be holding a press conference to announce a sudden about-face concerning its position on climate change legislation it had previously opposed. It apparently went unnoticed by reporters that the Chamber president’s name was misspelled on the release, but let’s not trifle with the details just yet.
Shortly after receiving the release, about a dozen journalists representing several prominent news organizations gathered on the 13th floor of the National Press Club (um, yeah) in Washington, D.C. to hear the “news.”
During the press conference, which lasted all of 20 minutes, a supposed Chamber spokesperson (who went by the name Hingo Sembra) told reporters that the organization had changed its mind. The bill, he said, was good for American businesses. The legislation, he said, might not be so bad after all.
And the media gobbled it up. Fast.
In less time than it takes to download an album from iTunes, several major news organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Reuter’s, rushed to post stories of the press conference on their respective Web sites. In its news story, Reuter’s declared, “The Chamber of Commerce said on Monday it will no longer opposes climate change legislation, but wants the bill to include a carbon tax.” A CNBC anchor, who actually sought—and found—comment from analysts, interrupted herself mid-sentence to announce “breaking news,” cutting away to a reporter who read from the fake press release. Apparently he too missed the spelling error.
When it was revealed shortly thereafter that the affair had been nothing more than a hoax orchestrated by the cultural activist group The Yes Men, these stories were immediately retracted; but it was too little too late. The damage to journalism had already been done. And while major media outlets were not The Yes Men’s primary targets here, it’s is clear that they are the ones who should feel the most humiliated by the experience.
The misspelling of Chamber president Thomas J. Donohue’s name on the press release not withstanding, the announcement of this press conference’s intentions should have been a red enough flag to raise a healthy dose of suspicion amongst seasoned reporters, many of whom had been covering the Chamber for several years prior to the morning’s proceedings. And had these journalists been doing their jobs properly, a single confirmation phone call to the Chamber could have prevented the entire mess from unfolding. But phone calls take time—sometimes several minutes—and well, reporters really can’t be bothered with such prosaic tasks these days. After all, who would manage their Twitter accounts in the meantime?
To be sure, an episode like the Yes Men hoax debacle is not the only harbinger of journalism’s waning pulse, but it is certainly a significant part of the problem. Cable news networks and print publications have become so obsessed with the flash and pizzazz (“Look mom, no sources!”) of Internet and 24-hour insta-reporting that they are apparently willing to throw out the most basic tenants of responsible journalism in exchange for breaking news on a second-by-second basis.
Today’s reporters and media consumers have neglected to stop and consider whether faster news equals better news, and this episode should serve as a warning that not every task is improved upon with a speedier delivery. There is a reason so-called “traditional” media once took so long to deliver: Some news is supposed to be slow. There is virtue and necessity in its meditative, cautious progression; but when immediacy—not accuracy—becomes the primary motivation in the dissemination of information, we all suffer.
Sure, when it comes to getting a pizza at your doorstep, the sooner the better. But with journalism, speed kills.
For further study, check out this brilliant indictment of CNN from John Stewart late last year. As always, it’s hilarious and poignant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFdU0JC5NEg