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After Breitbart and Shirley Sherrod, We Need a Slow-News Movement

5 years ago
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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.

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I'm terribly confused. What makes what she did OK 20 years ago? Are we just letting the fact that it was 20 years ago and never discovered until she apologized for it make it OK?

July 28 2010 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Seems that Breitbart is made the fall guy here but I hate to think what the White House reaction would have been if Breitbart reported that the N. Koreans were going to bomb Pearl Harbor? Sure is funny how a private citizen can send the White House into panic mode.

July 28 2010 at 6:45 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

It is truly a sad day for American Journalism when someone like Andrew Breitbart is given credibility. FOX NEWS should be ashamed that they allow hate mongers like Breitbart access to a large audience. Someone needs to say,"HAVE YOU NO SHAME, ANDREW BREITBART."

July 28 2010 at 3:30 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
Michael Keohane

The media has always been quick to publish. It goes with the territory. What is the problem today is that there is no real competition among the mainstream media. In the past, AP & UP kept a eye on each other - if one blundered, the other would do stories about the blunder. Same thing with the newspapers, if a reporter or a columnist erred -the page ten minor error would be placed in a prominent place in every other newspaper. That kept the media reasonably honest. When the Journalism majors came along, their sence of professional loyalty (and in most cases - their politics) made cover-ups inevitable. Whether news is published "fast" or "slow," the problems faced by listeners and readers in discerning the truth will remain.

July 28 2010 at 3:23 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael Keohane's comment
Michael Keohane

Sorry -sence should be sense. No Spell Check here.

July 28 2010 at 3:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Isn't it the democrats who want to limit free speech to corporations, even after the Surpreme Court ruled? It's funny that the democrats can't tae a dose of their own medicine when comments are taken out of context?

July 28 2010 at 3:04 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

*ahem* make that RUTH Marcus. I guess I'm proving everyone's point about the need for slow news with that mistake :).

July 28 2010 at 2:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I appreciate Shapiro's reasoning behind a slow news movement - particularly his stressing of the importance of context and thinking.

Proper contextualization does require a deeper look into the past than a quick reaction to the most recent controversy, even if the controversy is fire-from-the-hip reporting. A number of journalists have been resisting the call for faster, shallower, more widely broadcast news for quite some time.

However, and I hope this doesn't sound too quibbling, but if he's interested in "old fashioned journalistic courtesy" it's worthwhile he pay attention to Todd Sieling - whose Slow Blogging manifesto ( partially informed my own interest in "slow journalism" long before Sarah Marcus proposed the idea as original in the Washington Post. In fact, even before I'd learned of Sieling, I'd been part of the first crop of Masters in Specialized Journalism students at USC's Annenberg School, where Naka Nathaniel described his own take on "slow journalism" - as noted in this Sept. 2008 post from Sasha Anawalt: I articulated my own take on it in February, 2009 in this post when I launched my own Web site: and my interest led Joe Wilson, a newspaper publisher here in Oregon, to consider the topic as well:

Still, perhaps I'm reacting a bit too strongly as it helps to have more public voices brought to these ideas. I think my concern is that part of the problem with the 24 hour news cycle isn't simply its existence, but the fact that it has been championed by many of the loudest voices in the media and I'm wary that by ignoring the history of journalists dissecting this topic and thus "the quest to be well informed", voices from AOL, Washington Post or other large outlets will continue to enshrine a "media orthodoxy."

July 28 2010 at 2:30 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

We don't worry about Breitebart, we worry about the deception from the news outlets that don't carry the remarks of Shirley Sherrod's husband. And the fact that Shirley came back later in her talk & said she realized she was wrong to discriminate on skin color, (but OK to discriminate on a person of wealth!)doesn't deflect from the fact that the NAACP was yucking it up when she was talking about skin color discrimination. Breitbart won't miss a jot or tittle without being "corrected" by big media, but Dan Rather lied for years to the American people, even using fake Vietnam Vets to do so & without any responce from the "free press" we supposedly have. The free press has basically been lost due to Journalist "schools," that turn out reporters who only say what they themselves want to hear. Thank God for the internet sources that aren't moderated by people who "know better than the American people" what should be published or posted.

July 28 2010 at 1:48 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Indeed Walter. And a few are beginning to step up for it. Another way to phrase it: we need a "news" movement, period. As in vetted journalism...

-- Balkingpoints / www

July 28 2010 at 1:13 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

A few months ago I walked into the Newseum in DC. In one room they displayed the front pages of many newspapers from around the country and world during important history dates. When news organizations reported the news and were not bought and paid for by the politician in power. They also had on top of a counter a metal, wrought iron looking bin that held the last issue of that newspaper before it went out of business, the stack measuring at least 4 feet high. These papers probably went out of business because they forgot to serve their readers.

July 28 2010 at 12:58 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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