140, One Million

Notes from the 140 Characters Conference: if "journalism is a battle," what's the fighting about?

Robert Scoble, the man with the quickest laugh in the room, any room,
strode up on stage, triumphant. He grinned wide, even for a fellow
who’s already the jolliest about town, Silicon Valley normally, where
his personal brand as a far-sighted observer of social technology
trends looms large.

On stage Tuesday at the 140 Characters Conference, a New York City-based summit exploring all things Twitter, a panel of news broadcasters sat before not only Scoble, their towering moderator, but also
a crowd that was diverse in everything but its love of microblogging.
One of those broadcasters was CNN anchor Rick Sanchez, the
square-jawed baritone known mostly for his love of social media and
for the way he proves that affection: by reading tweets from viewers
during his live broadcasts. “What could be wrong with us wanting to
connect to people who want to connect with us?” Sanchez says. “It just makes all the sense in the world.”

But just a few days before the conference, CNN’s coverage of the
Iranian election and its aftermath had provoked widespread frustration
from the Twitterverse. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, “Untold thousands used the label
‘CNNfail’ on Twitter to vent their frustrations.” While CNN played
reruns, “New criticisms were being added on Twitter at least once a

Despite myriad challenges to verifying the reports and their senders,
many in the tech-savvy audience were among those riveted on Saturday
by the Twitter-based reports coming out of Iran, many of those seeming
to come from Iranian citizens reporting as frightened and angry
participants in the protests, confusion, and violence. Many in the
audience were also among those driving the label “#CNNfail,” called a
hashtag for the hash mark that precedes it and makes it easier to find
via search within Twitter.

As NYU professor Clay Shirky declared in a TED interview about the so-called
“Twitter Revolution,” “This is the first revolution that has been
catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.” So it
was not without some justification that Scoble and his audience were
eagerly prepared to serve the panel a dose or two of comeuppance.

Rick Sanchez defended CNN’s coverage, pointing out that CNN had
mentioned the unrest every hour on Saturday. He also noted that rival
networks had covered the news even less than CNN had in the early
aftermath of the election, and that his network was in “constant
contact” with Christiane Amanpour to add the latest updates to its
coverage. She “was there on the ground,” he said, “in Tehran, with
tear gas in her eyes and in her face, actually covering the story.”
Sanchez allowed that CNN wasn’t “rolling coverage of the protest of
every moment of the day on Saturday, the second Saturday of the
summer.” (Which is odd, since a distressed and tearing reporter would
seem to be not only newsworthy but emotionally powerful and gripping
to boot.) Still, he insisted, “I think it could be a little insulting
to someone like her to say that we weren’t on the story.”

Sanchez’s contorted defense wasn’t the only oddity onstage, however.
Ann Curry, NBC’s Today Show news anchor and Dateline
host, also unveiled a broad, moving defense of international
journalism—highlighting in particular the difficulty of getting her
viewers to care.

“I think journalism is a battle,” Curry declared, “and I feel the
scars, and I see the blood on my sword on a daily basis for fights for
foreign coverage to be more present in our broadcasting.”

“It’s about taking care of people, and you take care of people by
looking at the truth and you work for people who are reading or
watching or listening to you,” she said. “Reporting is a service job,
it’s not a business.”

“There is a responsibility that we have,” Curry said, “to not tell
stories and do stories for financial gain. We have a responsibility to
inform people of what they need to know first and what they want to
know second.”

“The reason I have to fight every time to do these stories is because
the truth is that it’s hard to get the majority of Americans or even a
significant number of Americans in NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS’s world, to

All of which is impassioned, enviable, and even narrowly correct. The
crowd of Twitterers responded to Curry’s earnestness by clapping and
whooping. Tweets hashtagged “#140conf” began to pop up with greater
frequency. They were brimming with admiration.

But…why? Curry’s declaration, however admirable on its surface, also
valorized a long-standing but unfortunate tradition of ignorance among
even the more heroic journalists about the business side of the news.
Alone, that’s bad enough, but it accompanied a particularly unctuous
false weltschmerz—a blame-the-people-first attitude for the lack of
hard news in America today.

Corporate pressures also squeezed hard news before new media tools
like blogs and Twitter ever had a chance. Just ask David Simon,
creator of the HBO television show The Wire. Testifying at
recent Congressional hearing on the future of the news business, Simon
fairly dripped with disdain for the industry’s financial
constriction. “In fact, when newspaper chains began cutting personnel
and content, the industry was one of the most profitable yet
discovered by Wall Street. We know now, because bankruptcy has opened
the books, that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon
edition and trimming nearly a hundred reporters and editors in an era
when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits.” This was 1995.

If Curry weren’t so quick to set aside cares about journalism’s bottom
line—yes, people have to want what you’re selling them—she
might be more familiar with how business decisions of all kinds
influence what’s news.

As of Wednesday, there were nearly a million tweets on the platform hashtagged
“#iranelection.” Although it’s impossible to say exactly what portion
of them came from Americans, it’s a safe claim nevertheless that a
significant number of Americans evidently care about the events in
Iran—and would have been practically glued to their television
screens had the cable channels given them something worth watching.

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Joshua Young blogs on new media at Networked News.