Some journalists beginning to question whether the media are moving too fast TV, Web may be creating a false sense of urgency

January 27, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Getting information on the air fast has always been something to brag about in television news. But how fast is too fast?

That is one of the questions being asked in the wake of allegations of a sexual relationship between President Clinton and a former White House intern.

In the new world of competing all-news cable channels and the Internet, information on the Clinton story has been moving at a dizzying speed, obliterating traditional news cycles and raising concerns that television might be adding a false sense of urgency to the story.

"I can't remember a story that's had quite this kind of momentum, certainly a Washington scandal story," said Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review.

"Obviously, there are some very serious elements that make it that way. But this is the first one in the world of so many news channels. And, combined with the Internet, things just move at a pace that was unimaginable in the past."

Even those setting the pace acknowledge being stunned by how fast things have been moving in the past week in Washington.

"There's no doubt with cable news channels, and particularly the Internet, that news cycles have quickened incredibly on this story," said Mike Riley, a former Time magazine bureau chief who now serves as executive editor of the CNN/Time online magazine

"Back in the days of weekly newsmagazines, you had a whole week to chew on these things. In the world of daily papers, you had 24 hours. Now, it's like information travels at the speed of light instead of the Pony Express. In the span of six days, it feels like we've been on this story three weeks."

The story broke on the Internet last week in a gossip column by Matt Drudge, who reported that Newsweek magazine had declined to run a story by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff that contained the allegations.

Once Newsweek posted some of Isikoff's reporting on the Internet, the story exploded through the media, with broadcast networks interrupting programming Wednesday afternoon to carry portions of a Clinton interview with Jim Lehrer. It has been nonstop since on the news channels, which have seen their ratings rise significantly as the story took hold.

Furthermore, CNN and MSNBC can gauge audience interest almost instantaneously through their interactive online operations, and this feedback can further drive coverage.

MSNBC reported yesterday that 120,000 people had responded to an online question about whether they believed Clinton was telling the truth. That was 10 times the level of interest shown during coverage of the death of Princess Diana, said MSNBC Internet correspondent Mary Kathleen Flynn.

"In terms of the Internet, interest is enormous," she said.

AJR's Rieder said the competition among all-news channels and the speed of information "can heighten the rush-to-judgment problem. I have no doubt this is a major, major story that deserves lots of coverage. But what we saw happening with O. J. -- and it's worse in this case -- is that in the scramble to compete, you have a lot of soft-sourcing.

"The upside of this information explosion is that there are so many ways to get news, and it's available all the time and available quickly. But sometimes, careful reporting seems to be the casualty."

Rieder and others add that distinctions among news outlets have to be made -- you can't think of all-news channels or the Internet as monolithic. In other words, there are good and bad places to get the news -- among old and new outlets.

They are right. While no one has yet been able to measure how much extra urgency MSNBC or CNN might be adding with such aspects of packaging as their logos, "The Presidency In Crisis" and "Investigating the President," both have generally been solid in their coverage, as have their World Wide Web sites. Furthermore, they bring an enormous arsenal of resources to their coverage.

"Our expertise is the expertise of NBC News and anchors like Brian Williams. That's what drives our coverage," said MSNBC executive producer Bob Epstein.

"The Internet does not drive the reporting on CNN," said Frank Sesno, senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of CNN.

Sesno compared coverage of the White House scandal to that of the Persian Gulf War, calling this story "the first live, real-time political scandal."

"We learned from that war," Sesno said. "Some of those lessons have served us well here. We've tried to slow things down, take a step back, not report things that aren't really ready for reporting. And we have held back. We've taken things out of people's scripts. We've killed scripts.

"We know we have company in the form of new competition. And, yes, information moves faster than ever. But while the competitive juices are flowing, we're not going to let them poison the well of good journalism."

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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