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From AJR,   December/January 2009  issue

Moving at Reckless Speed   

No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle
By Howard Rosenberg and Charles S. Feldman
Continuum
240 pages; $24.95


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

This odd little volume doesn't totally deliver on its enticing title, but it succeeds at something else: dramatizing the frazzled nerves within the media mainstream these days.

The book's theme is clear and unexceptional. Today's news media move at such "reckless speed" that accuracy gets crippled, gasbaggery supplants thought and hastiness shoves aside deliberation.

But many previous authors have explored these points. For example, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel produced "Warp Speed" almost a decade ago. Rosenberg, a Pulitzer-winning media critic formerly of the Los Angeles Times, and Feldman, an experienced TV and print investigative reporter, are credible veterans, but they have little original to say about the problem.

Worse, the writing is uneven and jarring. The book begins with that tritest of clichés, the best of times/worst of times, and sinks into such jangling prose as "Dude, chill" and "get out!". The chapters seem disjointed.

In the end, all the book recommends is a fanciful "truth in labeling" for news, an idea the authors themselves call "pie in the sky," and increased media literacy to educate citizens in skeptically assessing the news.

The book does open one promising line of inquiry – concern for how media relentlessness can stampede government and business officials into impulsive, perilous decisions. But even that one fizzles. It draws on a few quotes from former press secretaries, plus one hair-raising thunderbolt from one-time presidential aide Ted Sorensen, who theorizes that in today's pushy media environment, the Cuban Missile Crisis would have quickly escalated into "a nuclear war and the destruction of the world."

Granted, that's a big one, and someone ought to seriously study this matter. After this book was written, we've seen some scary examples. Apple shares dove after a citizen journalist wrongly reported on CNN that CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. United Airlines stock plunged 75 percent in minutes after a bad on-screen headline suggested bankruptcy.

But "No Time to Think" provides more hypothetical than actual instances and leaves it to others to investigate this potential problem in depth.

Even so, the book does drive home the head-spinning uncertainty and unsteadiness of today's change-happy journalism. While Rosenberg and Feldman labor to show they aren't troglodytes, they struggle to reconcile their tradition of responsible journalism with the chaos and cacophony accompanying the new media order.

Much of the book involves a grumpy critique of "citizen journalism," an innocuous-sounding trend that jolts some media pros like the spread of literacy and printing must once have unnerved the almighty elders.

Put simply, the concept suggests that anybody can be a "journalist," at least in the sense that today's technology lets anyone with a camera, phone or notebook (either kind) cover and comment on the news.

The authors, quoting a host of media graybeards, find the trend dire. "[C]itizen in this case is a euphemism for – uh oh – amateur. Not someone-not-paid-for-his-work amateur, necessarily, but wet-behind-the-ears amateur, untested-and-doesn't-know-what-he's-doing amateur, likely-to-screw-up-and-do-damage amateur," they write. Too often, they fear, citizen journalists dispense "mostly unlabeled opinion and commentary, not nuts-and-bolts reporting" and lack the training, skills, ethics and affiliations that buttress professional journalists' work.

These concerns seem sincere and serious but perhaps overblown. We know that professionals will do a better job than amateurs most of the time. The pros have more practice, commitment and skill. They are better connected to a powerful heritage of fairness, accuracy and reliability.

But thousands of us have seen the video of the working guy beating NBA all-star LeBron James at HORSE, haven't we? Sometimes the amateurs win. As with the earthquake in China, they get to a scene first, bother to attend a school board meeting the pros ignore, or otherwise know or learn something people care about.

Give ordinary people the tools to publish, and they will use them. Ultimately, this seems more empowering than threatening.

Still, it would be wrong to diminish the valid concerns "No Time to Think" raises or to disrespect the nervousness of honest journalists facing perplexing times. Unaccountable bloggers will surely trash the information stream, and the hopped-up news cycle will compromise accuracy, and the information-overload mania will goad stock markets and perhaps presidents into panicky misjudgments.

In such a world, don't you imagine that responsible journalism will be needed more than ever? The irony is that, despite some flaws and despite its title, "No Time to Think" makes you do just that: think.