The press services standardize the main events; it is only once in a while that a great scoop is made.
—Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1922
One of the hottest newspaper wars in the 1990s took place in Broward County, FL, where the fast-growing Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale faced relentless competition from The Miami Herald. As the Herald’s Broward city editor at the time, I pushed the staff relentlessly to beat our more entrenched competitor on any story, big or small.
Much of the time we won. Sometimes we lost. And then, there was the day in 1991, when a pair of our best reporters came into my office, breathless, with one of those unbelievable tips common to the South Florida news cycle.
Two sources had just told them that a local prostitute and her husband, who happened to be a sheriff’s deputy, had ensnared one of Fort Lauderdale’s most prominent politicians in their ring. And it wasn’t just any leading citizen. The politician was the vice mayor, Doug Danziger, who was closely associated with a large Broward church, and was famous for his own peculiar and vocal brand of sanctimoniousness, vowing crackdowns on pornography, nude bars, and other temptations.
That day, law enforcement authorities were telling our reporters that the vice mayor’s name had emerged as one of the prostitute’s clients. It turned out that her husband had acted as both her pimp and videographer, hiding in the bedroom and secretly taping her business through the louvers of their closet door. We would also learn that Danziger wore a cowboy hat while consorting with the deputy’s wife, though I’m not sure we were aware of that detail at the time.
This was a terrific story, but at the Herald, as at many news organizations, we wanted it confirmed by more than one source. And I couldn’t tell if our two reporters’ sources each had truly independent information or if one was simply parroting what the other had told him. So we held off publishing any details of Danziger’s involvement, even though we knew that our competitors also were aware of it.
The Sun-Sentinel, which either had more sources or more aggressive publishing standards, ran with it, stripped across the top of its Page One. The Herald mustered only a tepid update of the investigation on the Local front, without Danziger’s name. And, most importantly, the Sun-Sentinel story turned out to be true.
To this day, I’m not sure if I made the right or the wrong call based on what we knew at the time, but I am sure of this much: The Sun-Sentinel was the only news outlet anyone wanted to talk about that day, and for many days afterward. And from then on, their reporters pretty much owned this story.
I bring up this ancient history to come to the defense of a much-maligned artifact of the news-gathering business: The scoop.
In recent months, but particularly since the bumbling performance of CNN, the New York Post, and other media on the Boston marathon bombing, we have heard that scoops are no longer relevant, necessary, or even desirable.
As chaos descended upon Boston last week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick warned his constituents to brace themselves “for a certain amount of misinformation and rumors masquerading as news because everyone is so anxious to fill the time….They’re hoping to get a scoop.” Jon Stewart told his Daily Show audience that CNN’s report of an early arrest in the case was “exclusive because it was completely f—-ing wrong.” In Canada, Jaime Weinman, an entertainment writer for Maclean’s magazine, wrote Wednesday that “there’s no clear advantage or good purpose to this kind of scooping.” He advised reporters to “just wait for the government press conferences and official announcements…and then they can add to the official story…without fear that they’re going to be creating panic or confusion.”
And, most eloquently, Paul Waldman, an editor at The American Prospect, delivered a short manifesto on the subject, titled “The Trouble With Scoops.” Just before listing a few of the bungled stories in Boston, Waldman wrote that “scoops are beside the point,” adding that readers “don’t care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what happened.”
To his credit, Waldman delineates between what he calls “real” and “ephemeral” scoops. A real scoop, he says, is one that wouldn’t have been revealed but for the reporter’s digging; an ephemeral scoop is information that would have been made public anyway, and so it’s more a matter of journalists’ bragging rights than a genuine contribution to the public. (Jay Rosen, the NYU professor and press critic, came up with his own taxonomy last year, breaking exclusive stories into the categories of enterprise, ego, traders, and thought scoops.)