Heath Ledger and the Web

The MSM played catch-up

Radar magazine broke the news first, on its Web site, at 4:36pm:

We’re hearing a totally crazy rumor that Heath Ledger has been found dead of an overdose. It could be totally off-base, but if it’s not we want credit for “reporting” it first. Let us know if you’ve heard anything!

TMZ, the celebrity site, confirmed Ledger’s death (which occurred, reportedly, at 3:31 p.m.) at 4:40. The New York Post’s Page Six had the news at 4:41. City Room, The New York Times’s New York-based blog, had it at 4:42. Gawker had it by 4:48.

It was another reminder of the agility and speed of Web reporting, sure. But, more than that, it was a reminder of the power that Web journalists have not merely to report stories, but to drive traditional outlets’ coverage of them. The MSM, yesterday evening, was forced into a frenzied game of catch-up. The New York Times, having sent six of its reporters to help blog-guru Sewell Chan cover the story for City Room, used reporting from fourteen—yes, fourteen—others to yield its big story. People magazine, benefiting from its late-for-the-industry Tuesday night deadline, compiled a last-minute cover story on the actor’s life and death. Larry King pre-empted the first part of his “big get” interview—a second talk with Dr. Jan Adams, the doctor who performed Kanye West’s mother’s fatal surgery last fall—for a hastily-produced montage of Ledger’s work, set to the score of Brokeback Mountain.

All the scrambling, as scrambling often does, led to some mistakes. In its haste to post its take on the Ledger story, as Gawker points out, the Huffington Post erroneously tagged a piece about the death under “Keith” Ledger. And while the speed-trumping-all ethos is nothing new in journalism, it’s still remarkable the extent to which those initial, speed-focused pieces set the tone of the story’s coverage. As Rachel Sklar notes,

Not like we need any more indicators that the nature of the news cycle has changed, but this is once again evidence that the internet has muscled out the traditional media in covering—and driving coverage of—high-profile stories like this. For good or ill.

Speaking of “for good or ill,” MSNBC just interviewed Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, a DNA expert from NYC’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, about the inconclusive results of Ledger’s autopsy this morning. Kobilinsky’s expert take, over the several-minute-long conversation, boiled down to ‘we’re not sure what killed him.’

Exactly. No one is right now. And it certainly didn’t require a special guest—let alone a DNA expert—to confirm that. But if Web culture believes anything when it comes to much of its news coverage, it’s that talking can be just as important as saying something.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.