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From AJR,   March 2010  issue

Anything Goes   

A flurry of publishing without knowing

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

"Seinfeld" was invariably described as a show about nothing. Recently we were treated not to a story about nothing, but to a story that was nothing.

On February 5, New York's Daily News reported breathlessly that there was a "possibility that a major newspaper is about to drop a bombshell story" about the personal life of New York Gov. David Paterson.

Within days, Web sites and newspapers alike were abuzz with speculation that the "scandal" to be revealed by the New York Times was so severe that it might hurt Paterson's reelection chances or maybe force him to resign. The Web site Business Insider even had a precise time frame: "We've now heard from a single source familiar with the goings on at the Governor's office that the story will likely drop on Monday, and that the governor's resignation will follow." But nothing dropped on Monday, except maybe Business Insider's credibility. With all the hullabaloo, Paterson felt compelled to issue a denial of the charges, although no one had the slightest idea what those "charges" were.

On February 17, the Times published an article--not about the governor and sex, as had been speculated, or the governor and drugs (also speculated) or even the governor and rock 'n' roll, but rather about one of his top aides. The following day, the Times ran a lengthy piece portraying the guv as a very disengaged executive indeed with a fondness for expensive restaurants. Not flattering, but hardly nuclear.

On February 25, the bombshell finally exploded, in the form of a powerful piece saying the aforementioned Paterson aide had allegedly brutally beaten a woman. The victim said the State Police had pressured her to drop the charges, according to the article, and her lawyer said Paterson himself had called her to see if he could help.

Very strong stuff--Paterson quickly scrapped his reelection campaign--but nothing remotely resembling the wild guesswork about Paterson's personal life that had set off the original kerfuffle. In fact, Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson told the paper's public editor, Clark Hoyt, the Times didn't even know about this episode while the frenzy of speculations was in full flower; it emerged only after the first two pieces were published.

What happened here? Why waste so much time and energy on gauzy conjecture rather than wait to see what the Times actually had? Call it yet another triumph by the "it's out there" school of journalism. In recent years, that's been the explanation/defense in countless instances when rumors, gossip, half-truths, untruths and pure gossamer get wide distribution.

No, we didn't really know. But we couldn't ignore it. Everyone else was going with it. It was out there.

This, of course, is hardly a new problem. After the Clinton/Lewinsky frenzy, for example, a study by the Committee of Concerned Journalists found that much of the original reporting on that sordid saga was fairly solid. Many of the worst abuses came when news outlets were chasing rumors and other news organizations' scooplets, often pulling the trigger prematurely.

But the media atmosphere of that time was downright somnolent compared with today's overheated, get it out there and get it out there fast world. Things ricochet rapidly around the Internet. Caution is not a quality in great demand.

Consider the Tiger Woods maelstrom. As Paul Farhi shows in his excellent dissection of the coverage (see "Lost in the Woods," Spring 2010), all too many traditional news organizations--whose editors should know better--were quick to uncritically pick up any and all stories about the endless parade of alleged Woods playmates, regardless of the dubious sourcing and the red flags.

In a beautiful piece of irony, the National Enquirer got the Woods boulder rolling with a meticulously reported piece, months in the making, about the golfer nonpareil's extramarital adventures with a New York City event planner named Rachel Uchitel. The tab interviewed numerous witnesses, polygraphing some of them, and had reporters staking out the pair. When Woods' camp took issue, the paper held the story to do more double-checking. But when platoons of porn stars and lingerie models claiming to be paramours of the apparently tireless Woods began coming out of the woodwork, too many news outlets uncritically ballyhooed their accounts.

There are those who say that the Internet is self-correcting, so that if bogus material is put forth, it will soon be discredited. But that's not all that comforting. It's a lot easier to do damage than to undo it. The genie is not so easily restored to the bottle.

The rise of the Web led to the end of the era of gatekeepers, when a handful of big-time media outlets could decide what was news and what wasn't. And there's much that's healthy about that.

But it's hardly a license to simply throw everything at the wall to see what sticks.