It’s a conversation that I remember well. We were sitting in an Irish Pub on the Upper East Side, NYC. It must have been late 2003, because my friend Pete was still trying to buck the new smoking ban. As a perennial non-smoker and law-bender, I could see both sides of it. I hated cigarettes with a passion, but I supported Pete’s right to smoke one when and where he wanted. But then again, I was that guy who refused to wear a seatbelt because it infringed on my civil liberties.
“You know what I love about living in New York?” He said.
“It’s the greatest city in the world?” I replied. I was a visitor. I’d lived in the City from 2001 to 2002 and moved back to Ohio for a variety of reasons, 9/11 first and foremost.
“Well, there’s that. But what I love about the city is the endless possibilities. I love the fact that if I need anything at all I can get it at any time, day or night. If I need a three-piece suit at 4:30 in the morning, I can find a tailor to make it for me. Anything at all.”
“Yes, that is truly amazing.” I said. I’d always said that New York City was the hub of the wheel that makes the world go around. That the closer that you are to the hub, the faster the wheel spins. And that the farther you are from the hub, say Cicily, Alaska, the slower the wheel spins. It goes so slow that you might not be attached to the wheel at all. Just ask Dr. Joel Fleischman and he’ll confirm that for you.
New York City was the 24-hour cycle of life. When you live there you feel like you are ahead of everyone else. Be it news, fashion, music, movies, you name it; everything seems to get to you first. I treasure my time there and I probably glamorize it a little too much. But for me it was like being plugged into the Matrix. But as with all other things concerning instant gratification, some of it will be caviar and some of it will be shit.
I’ve always been a writer. In my wildest dreams I was an investigative journalist breaking big cases like Woodward and Bernstein in All the Presidents Men. I even flirted with the Carter Journalism Center at NYU, but I was never an academic and I was certainly never someone who could string together other people’s words. For me, the only avenue for creativity was long-form fiction and opinion essays. But I never lost that interest in the craft and form of investigative journalism. That’s why the advent of the 24-hour news cycle is so distressing to me.
For hundreds of years, Journalism was a series of lovingly articulated to stories crafted at breakneck speed. Competitors in any city could be found trying to break the next big story, to get the Scoop. The scoop has always been an important part of journalism, a trophy similar to a great rack of antlers hanging on the wall in the Man Cave. Careers were made and broken with the scoop of The Next Big News Story.
And then about thirty years ago we started to see a change in the way news stories were gathered and shared with the public. In the old days most stories were broken in only a few of different ways. There was the newspaper, the bastion of the serious reporter. Depending on the paper, there were one or more additions throughout the day. The news junkie knew for example that he could be at a certain newsstand at a certain time to get the news before anyone else. Next there was the local TV news, which was shown three to four times per day with the occasional news break for the huge news stories like an assassination or the selection of a new Pope. For national news the Networks had a similar timetable for folks to tune in and watch Cronkite and Jennings. Lastly there was news radio, which had the most flexibility but also the lowest circulation and listenership.
That was it. Local newspapers, TV and radio were your options for news dissemination.
And then came the early 80’s and the nationalizing of news. A couple of things happened simultaneously early in that decade. A national newspaper, the USA Today came out. It was the first time that we had a widely available news source that wasn’t localized or regionalized. At the same time cable TV became widely available. There’d been regional stations like TBS and WGN for decades. Ted Turner parlayed his TBS empire into CNN and then Headline News. For the first time you could turn on your TV at any time of the day or night and get all the important headlines every twenty minutes with constant updates. The Scoop Game was turned upside down.
It was the beginning of the marginalization of professional journalism.
Remember that three-piece suit at 4:30 in the morning? Well now we were talking news, sports, sitcoms, movies and porn any time of the day or night 24/7/365. Who needs to go meet the newspaper truck at 4:00 in the morning if you can get all the headlines at 2:00?
Which brings the Internet in the 90’s. In the years between the Cable age and the Internet age there were a few developments that were precursors to what I’ll call the Social Media Age. In the earliest days of the Internet there were text based services called bulletin boards and list serves that catered to people of similar interests. They weren’t widely used, but for the ones in the know, they were fiercely loyal. The users knew each other as well as today’s Tweeple know each other. Probably better. And the veracity of their credibility was on display on a daily basis among their peers. If they fucked up, they would no longer be trusted. They had to post with integrity in order to keep their audience.
In the past decade, the dissemination of news and information has gotten ever faster and harder to verify. The cable news outlets have become highly competitive not only with their news and their scoops but also with their ideology and messaging behind it. A lot of editorial opinion was suddenly being passed off as news. And the American people gorged themselves on it. We became fat with knowledge that was obtained not through traditional journalism, but increasing things that were reserved for the op-ed page.
And the competition for the scoops and the first sound bite bragging rights lead to some legendary fuckups. Does anyone remember Richard Jewel, the falsely accused Olympic Park Bomber? And do you remember Jon King and Wolf Blitzer falsely reporting that the Boston Marathon Bombers were dark men wearing hoodies? Turns out they were white men wearing backwards baseball caps. In 2012 CNN and Fox News tried to out-scoop each other by reporting that the Supreme Court had ruled against Obamacare. What a day that was.
Which brings me to the subject of this rant. With the advent and broad subscriber-ship to Facebook and especially Twitter, the ever-increasing pace of the news cycle has reached the speed of light. People, myself included, sit on their phones and computers refreshing the page over and over again until they get the news they are looking for, be it a ball score or and election result. The talk radio and television streams have scrambled to stay ahead of the curve. As soon as a story is broken there are a thousand experts ready to chime in on it, often times without the full details.
The speed of this is problematic. I’ll site a recent example of what I am talking about. Thrice in the past eight months, the Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon has found himself in trouble for substance abuse. Each time a “trusted expert” has broken the “story” based on a leak from an unspecified “source.” Immediately, almost at the speed of light, panels of experts are on the scene pontificating about Gordon’s “addiction,” his “alcoholism” and the “tough love” that the team needs to give him to set him straight. Don’t get me wrong, Josh has been fucking up. He admits that. But it’s no excuse for slander.
Cris Carter, noted addiction specialist, famously stated: “We are dealing with addiction here.”
Cris, 16 ng/ml positive test of marijuana one time over 180 drug tests ≠ drug addiction. If Josh was addicted, he would have failed more that 1/180.
Charles Barkley, noted expert on alcoholism, famously stated: “I have a brother who’s dead … Josh Gordon is going to die if he keeps going on this road he’s going.”
Chuck, 2 beers and two cocktails = failed alcohol test, but over the course of six months of testing ≠ alcoholism
The bottom line is that while Cris Carter and Charles Barkley are entitled to their opinions, the statements that they made are borderline slanderous. “Experts” like these will very rarely apologize for their opinions, and the public, accepting it as news, will never forget. Cris and Chuck, I love you guys, but I wish you would hold your comments until the facts are in. When you make blanket assumptions without fact, you not only sound ignorant, but you make the public more ignorant.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with 140-character journalism. People desperate for the latest news see a tweet from a noted “expert” and accept it as gospel. Whether the tweet is about bombings, ethics charges, drug tests or plagiarism, if you are wrong, you are still painting someone with an indelible mark that cannot be removed. Getting it right is more important than getting it first. Get The Facts. Report Responsibly. Respect Your Fellow Humans.