I just finished reading Dan Rather's new book, Rather Outspoken. He describes the journalist's role in a simple phrase, which I'll paraphrase. Get the truth and tell it.
Rather tells his side of the troubles at CBS News that led to his losing the anchor chair and ultimately leaving CBS News, where he grew up learning from the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Daniel Schorr, Douglas Edwards and many other names we knew and respected at CBS. Understanding there are always two sides to a story, Rather says he became increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with CBS when, as a cog in the giant corporate wheel that is Viacom, the storied news organization began getting interference from the corporate bigwigs regarding decisions about what stories to cover and which to sweep under the rug. CBS, he says, caved to pressure from the White House and powerful Congressmen about its pursuing stories like the year-long absence of George W. Bush when he was in the National Guard. He tells of pressure and retribution from the White House, long before Viacom was in the picture, over other stories that delved into wrongdoing in high places, like the Watergate break-in and the release of the Ellsberg papers. He makes clear it's not only Republicans who try to exert undue pressure on what and how news organziations report, but Democrats as well, as exemplified by the tight lid now kept on actions in Afghanistan by the Pentagon.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the new HBO series by Aaron Sorkin, "The Newsroom," dramatizes the pressures faced by news producers and reporters when stories they report may be seen as contrary to the larger financial interests of the news organization's parent company. (Sound familiar?) In the show, the head of the conglomerate that owns the CNN-like network pressures the top news executive and the news anchor, played respectively by Sam Waterston and Jeff Daniels, to back off stories that high-placed people in government would rather the public not know about. Daniels' character, like the real-life Dan Rather, refuses to dilute the stories he and his team report.
As if the pressures that come from financial conflicts of interest weren't enough, there's the new phenomenon of social media. With the 24-hour news cycle, there's pressure to be first to report news. But as we saw with the recent tragedy in Colorado, getting it first doesn't always mean you've gotten it right. Some tweets on Twitter wondered if the shooter was a member of the Tea Party, and that erroneous supposition got picked up by news organizations eager to have something new to report. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have proven to be less than reliable sources of information in breaking news stories, yet we've seen many instances where incorrect information gets picked up from social media and repeated by the more respected mainstream media. It's happened recently to ABC News and even NPR, which has never had a reputation for being sensationalist.
"I'd rather be behind and right than ahead and wrong," said Associated Press executive editor Kathleen Carroll recently. But the competitive pressure to be first can be powerful and can lead to mistakes, as we now see.
And it's not only TV news (and NPR) that have participated in the swarm. Newspapers -- especially the tabloids -- are fast to fan the flames as breaking stories unfold. They even give some stories a catchy name. Today's Daily News in New York devotes its first four pages to the shooting in Colorado, under the banner "Dark Knight Massacre," complete with a Batman logo. I don't think we know yet if the shooting had anything at all to do with the film, except for the fact that the nut-job happened to pick a theater showing that film.
Yes, the public wants to know and deserves to know what's happening in the world around us. But we need to have patience, since not every breaking story is black & white clear regarding what happened and why. It often takes time to get the details, and haven't we learned by now that eyewitnesses -- especially untrained observers -- don't always get details right.