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Media play fast, loose with Times' Paterson story

By Brent Cunningham, Special to CNN
  • Brent Cunningham: Media guessing over New York Times story on governor wrong
  • Cunningham says speed and gossip trump reporting and accuracy in new information age
  • But getting it right matters; getting it wrong has consequences, he says
  • Cunningham: In fragmented media, journalistic standards more crucial than ever

Editor's note: Brent Cunningham is the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. His work has appeared in The Nation and the anthology "Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Radical Media Criticism," as well as Nieman Reports, the Italian journal Problemi dell'Informazione and the French journal Medias.

New York (CNN) -- "Dewey Defeats Truman," "Kerry's Choice: Dem Picks Gephardt," and, now, "Looming Paterson Scandal Involves Affair with N.Y. Woman" -- if and when The New York Times reports it. Or not.

In case you missed it (you'd be lucky if you did), more than two weeks of feverish press speculation about a coming "bombshell" story in the Times culminated Wednesday when the Times published the piece -- which was about New York Gov. David A. Paterson's driver-turned-top aide, not the governor himself -- and it contained none of the salacious sexual and drug-related gossip that news outlets from Gawker to The Associated Press had been tittering (and tweeting) about. (For examples of said tittering, go here, here and here.)

Speed has always been a source of trouble for journalism, even when news had cycles calibrated to days, not seconds, and it was simply a matter of competitive pressure -- an honorable if largely obsolete journalistic tradition that over the years has fueled some excellent work.

But the speed problem on display in the Paterson debacle wasn't the kind of competitive haste that produced the infamous Dewey headline. Rather, it is the product of an information culture where electronic publishing is easy and too often disconnected from the journalistic checks and balances created to prevent gaffes.

Video: Paterson rips the press

The news hole is bottomless and a story can be posted -- and removed -- with the click of a mouse. In today's Web-driven journalism, speed has become an end unto itself. Publish quickly and constantly, forethought optional; it's the coin of the digital realm.

Speed -- especially when paired with scandal or controversy -- brings traffic, and traffic helps sell ads. The default position of far too much Web journalism is publish first, and if it's wrong, so what? The "crowd" will correct it.

But getting it right matters. And getting it wrong has consequences. Remember Richard Jewell? Or Wen Ho Lee? Or how about the credulous coverage of the march to war in Iraq?

And given that Mark Twain's quip about a lie traveling halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on is more apt now than ever, getting it right matters even more. Remember the inaccurate interpretation that led to this?: "Justice Scalia: I would have voted to keep school segregation"? Or when it was erroneously reported that Hillary Clinton neglected to tip an Iowa waitress?

The problem is that, in this brave new world, speed tends to trump other, more important, journalistic values. Namely, verification and editorial judgment. Neither were in evidence in the Paterson-Times saga.

For starters: Is pure speculation about whether another news outlet will publish a story really the best use of my newsroom resources? And if it is, then should it give me pause that there are no named sources on a rumor that came out of Albany -- a poster child for political ineptitude -- and was kick-started by Page Six, the gossip column of the New York Post?

Doing journalism well is difficult, often tedious work. Doing it poorly, or not at all, as was the case with the feeding frenzy around the Paterson story, is easy. While the gossip festered, editors and reporters at the Times were no doubt sweating the details, trying to make sure everything in their report was accurate and in proper context. In other words, they were committing journalism. You may disagree with their choices, and despite their efforts a fact, or multiple facts, may still turn out to be wrong. But the point is the effort itself, not that the effort is imperfect.

Some have argued the Times had an obligation to set the record straight about what it was working on, and that by not doing so, it was complicit in the unbridled speculation. This is absurd. It is not the job of a news outlet to knock down rumors about what it may or may not be about to report. And even if it was, does anyone seriously think a denial by the Times would have stopped the madness?

Now that the journalism world has been fractured by technology, its standards and mission -- indeed its very identity -- are up for grabs. (Who's a journalist? What is journalism?) So it's more important than ever to speak up for battle-tested standards of professionalism, such as the need to verify information before publishing and the rigorous application of editorial judgment.

It's important to understand how the best journalists do their jobs, the lengths to which they go to make sure their stories are as accurate and sensitive to the potential consequences as possible. This is not a partisan argument. Journalists -- even lousy ones --have tremendous power over how people think about things. And with that power comes tremendous responsibility.

If the standards on display in the Paterson fiasco are all we intend to ask of our journalists these days, then we're in trouble. Even if, as Gawker suggested -- based on an anonymous tip, of course -- that Wednesday's article wasn't the real Paterson story, and that the "bombshell" may still be on its way.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brent Cunningham.