It was the biggest American news exclusive of World War I. In a breathless cable that immediately went out over the wire on Nov. 7, 1918, thrilling a war-weary world, United Press correspondent Roy Howard
reported from Paris in telegraph-ese: "URGENT ARMISTICE ALLIES GERMANY SIGNED ELEVEN MORNING HOSTILITIES CEASED."
The United Press scoop was marred by only one pesky factual problem -- the actual armistice was not signed until four days later, Nov. 11. The resulting reputation for unreliability helped consign the penny-pinching UP to perpetual also-ran status in its 20th
-century competition with The Associated Press.
Think how the United Press might have handled its blunder in today's media environment. Taking an aggressive tone, the news service could have claimed that it got the gist of the story correct since there would indeed be a November armistice. (After all, what was four days to the boys in the trenches?) But the UP could also have argued -- and this justification might sound familiar -- that it was infinitely more important to beat the news cycle and be promoted on cable TV than wait to confirm every minor detail, like the actual date of the cease-fire.
What brings this journalistic parable to mind is the arrogantly unapologetic way that Andrew Breitbart has reacted to the furor over the ripped-out-of-context Shirley Sherrod speech excerpt
that he posted on his website. Choosing bluster over blushing, Breitbart told Matt Lewis in a Politics Daily interview
: "I couldn't wait to get this story. I knew from past experience that I had a news cycle to get this out." Later in the interview, Breitbart underscored his cavalier publish-or-perish approach to fact-checking: "It had to be done at the exact moment in time that the press would notice it." A new report
by the Project for Excellence in Journalism details how the Sherrod charade migrated from conservative blogs taking their cues from Breitbart to Fox News and then to CNN.
Breitbart is just a symbol of a larger problem that transcends the poison-pen politics of ideological warriors (of both the right and left) and the slippery ethics of the blogosphere. We have collectively blundered into a P.T. Barnum media age when being first trumps being accurate. The economic rewards of the Internet flow to those who win the search-engine wars by being fast and furious rather than to those laggards who wait to be accurate and comprehensive. It is as if the motto of today's journalism has become: "He who dies with the most clicks wins."
Every second, we are mentally assaulted by hyperbolic cable TV "breaking news" alerts, data bursts and Twitter trivia. Meaning and context disappear amid the bite-sized news nuggets. In the world of politics, every new poll, TV ad and opposition-research press release is treated as a game changer on par with Newt Gingrich handing down the Contract With America from Mount Sinai. If everything is equally important, then simultaneously everything is equally unimportant.
A compelling case can be made that just three events have shaped the political landscape this year: the congressional passage of health care reform, the glacial pace of the economic revival and the BP oil spill.
These are tangible things likely to influence voter behavior in November, but too often they are treated as the boring backdrop to evanescent poll-propelled political news. The Capitol Hill battles over health care now seem like ancient history -- something that happened long ago, back in the days when would-be reality TV stars could crash White House state dinners. Who has time to pause to consider what a jobless recovery might mean for Barack Obama's political future when there is the restless need to check for a new Sarah Palin posting on Facebook?
What we need in this country -- and I am being entirely serious -- is a Slow News Movement.
Maybe we can never return to the era when we learned the news by reading a hefty newspaper with breakfast and watching a 30-minute network newscast before dinner. But there was something comprehensible about that bygone pace of news delivery. We could think about what happened in the world, read bits of stories aloud to our spouse and even discuss things at work around a physical (as opposed to metaphorical) water cooler. If something epic and tragic occurred like the Kennedy assassination, then the TV networks pre-empted the soap operas and the sitcoms to give us the round-the-clock coverage we craved.
But now we all have the attention span of . . . sorry, I lost my train of thought -- I was checking my BlackBerry. We have lost sight of so many significant aspects of our age because they cannot be boiled down to bite-sized news nuggets. It is more than combat fatigue that produces the bizarre reality that -- military families aside -- most Americans appear to have almost forgotten that we are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are wars that defy easy answers, and the latest updates from the ever-shifting battlefields
cannot be encapsulated in 140-character tweets.
A Slow News Movement would be a form of reader rebellion. The faster-faster, win-the-morning, dominate-the-evening proponents of the new instant information journalism are not going to change their methods. Nor are the stink-bomb-tossing Breitbarts of this world suddenly going to behave like the reincarnation of Walter Lippmann. The reigning media orthodoxy is that tomorrow will be like today -- only more amphetamine-laced and more irresponsible.
(Old-fashioned journalistic courtesy prompts me to mention that the idea of a Slow News Movement is not entirely original with me. As I discovered after I began writing, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus recently proposed the Slow Blogging Movement
Ask yourself: Do I really understand the world better by getting my news constantly in brief staccato bursts than I did 10 or 15 years ago, when news (even on cable TV) was packaged by editors?
Maybe it is folly to dream that in the quest to be well-informed, Americans will voluntarily drop out of the ever-pulsating media culture that brings out the worst in all of us. The answer is probably not a mass-market return to newspapers, newsmagazines and network newscasts. NPR and the PBS' "NewsHour" are laudable enterprises, but they have aging demographics similar to those of print journalism.
The problem is not the new technology of the news, but rather how quickly we have been enslaved by it. Thinking, real thinking, takes as much time today as it did when the news was disseminated by fast-fingered telegraph operators. Deprived of context, facts do not speak for themselves. Analysis and interpretation of the news are needed to spur comprehension -- and not just as an excuse for ideological rants and as a way to rack up cheap political points.
With the news media in the midst of a wrenching transition, there have to be protected spaces somewhere -- whether on the Internet or on cable TV -- for millions of citizens to savor and contemplate the news. The news of government, politics and the world is too important to be instantly consumed like a shopaholic racing through a mall. Our democracy simply cannot survive if we fail to see the forest for the tweets.
But even in the old days, staggering journalistic error was rarely enough to derail a career. Roy Howard, the young wire service reporter who mistakenly produced the False Armistice, went on to become the president of the United Press and to help forge the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. It illustrates an enduring truth about America -- nothing succeeds like epic failure.