Speed Demons

Press-conference pranksters reopen the “speed vs. accuracy” debate

The scene that unfolded in the John Peter Zenger Room at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. earlier this week was news-as-comedy at its finest.

The Yes Men group of hoaxsters pretended they were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and that the organization was announcing a decision to back strong climate change legislation. During the press conference, a real rep from the Chamber stormed into the room and tried to convince journalists that they were listening to an impostor. Here’s how Dana Milbank of the Washington Post detailed the exchange between the fake spokesman (Sembra/Bichlbaum) and the real one (Wohlschlegel):

“This is not an official U.S. Chamber of Commerce event,” Eric Wohlschlegel declared, introducing himself and making his way to the lectern. “This is a fraudulent press activity and a stunt.”

“Who are you really, sir?” asked Sembra/Bichlbaum.

“Can I see your business card?”

“Can I see yours?”

“I work there, and you do not look familiar to me at all,” Wohlschlegel, with a pencil behind his ear, went on. “This guy does not represent the Chamber of Commerce.”

“You can’t barge in here and interrupt our press conference,” Sembra/Bichlbaum argued.

“This is a fraud! He’s lying!” the real spokesman shouted. “It’s a fraudulent press conference.”

The news conference dissolved into two news conferences, as spokesman and impostor each gave reporters his version of events.

Hilarious stuff, except for the fact that, prior to the press conference and while the shouting match was going on, major media outlets were reporting that the Chamber of Commerce was indeed changing its stance on climate change.

“In the current media environment, where it’s more important to have it first than to get it right, it won’t be long until the next mix-up,” Milbank wrote.

We can thank the Yes Men for offering the latest reason for reopening the “speed versus accuracy” debate, an argument that has taken place in journalism for a good 200 years. I don’t agree with Milbank that things are any worse today in terms of journalists’ desire to beat the competition. Like so many Internet commenters, we have always sought the glory that comes with being able to declare, “First!”

What has changed, however, are the consequences. When the Chicago Daily Tribune sent out its famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” edition on November 2, 1948, its error did not ricochet around the world in a matter of minutes. The damage was relatively contained, and the mistake would have probably been forgotten if photographer Pierce W. “Pete” Hangge, of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, hadn’t snapped the iconic photo of Truman brandishing the paper two days later in St. Louis.

In contrast, the Yes Men’s latest hoax was on the cable networks and newswires long before the instant classic comedy routine, “No, I’m the Chamber of Commerce!,” played to a rapt audience.

In today’s media environment, errors spread farther and faster than ever before. And since media organizations do such a poor job of correcting their mistakes, these errors continue to propagate.

Another key factor in the new world of journalism is that scoops last for a much shorter period of time. After a few hours have passed, hardly anyone can remember who first reported an item. By then it has spread far and wide, and it’s likely that new information has been unearthed. (Also, news organizations are still stingy about crediting the competition.) Just look at the recent infographic produced by New York magazine, in which it attempted to trace the sources of the stories that dominated just one day of news.

There are, of course, exceptions—cases when a scoop really is a scoop. These bring glory and bragging rights, not to mention the new currency of journalistic prestige: clicks. Gawker has taken to paying sources for exclusive information, such as celebrity sex tapes, because it can bring in lots of traffic, and traffic equals revenue. But Nick Denton, owner of Gawker Media, doesn’t open his checkbook for just anyone. He’s stingy about what to pay for.

News organizations should adopt a similar Scrooge mentality when thinking about which stores really need to be rushed out into the world. Most reports can stand to be held for fifteen minutes of extra checking, such as actually calling the official number listed for the Chamber of Commerce to verify the news release. After all, if the information comes via a news release, does it really warrant being rushed out like a scoop?

Often, the difference between getting it wrong and getting it right is a matter of minutes, of one or two phone calls. It’s kind of sickening to realize that journalists routinely choose such a risky practice (“First!”) when it’s so easy to mitigate the potential damage.

Every time it appears as though news organizations have chosen speed over accuracy—Sago, the 2000 presidential election, etc.—we hear the same lament: they chose to get it first, rather than get it right.

I don’t think that admonishment is working. Frankly, when the heat is on and there’s an opportunity to achieve even a minute of glory, most journalists will take the risk.

With that in mind, I’m trying to popularize a new saying, one that might do a better job of addressing the self-interest that emerges at the scent of a scoop.

It goes like this: hardly anyone remembers who got it first, but they rarely forget who got it wrong.

Correction of the Week

“Make sure to double-check the numbers, the editor said. Okay, we said. Make sure to double-check the address, the editor said. Okay, we said. What a pest. The guy has this hang-up with accuracy. But we did double-check the numbers and address for the Haven of Rest Cemetery and did indeed get them right in Monday’s editorial.

“And promptly misspelled the name of the chairman of the Friends of Haven of Rest cemetery’s board of directors. His name is B.J. McCoy, not B.J. McKay.

“We apologize.

“But our error does give us another reason to mention the cemetery and its friends. They can both use all the help they can get.” — Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.