The parallel worlds of traditional and trash tabloid “journalism” existed long before virtually anyone and everyone could publish their opinions online. Elvis sightings have been a staple of supermarket tabs, it seems, since the day the King died. And an endless string of elicit celebrity sins and affairs has always been the supermarket tabs’ standard, if often imagined, fare.
Sometimes, too, the “news” in the trash tabs turn out to be not merely titillating but true, forcing the hand of a tiptoeing elite media. That happened when the National Enquirer broke the story of John Edwards’ affair (yes, the baby was his, too) before some traditional media even seriously investigated.
So when word ricocheted around the Internet that The New York Times was working on a “bombshell” about New York Gov. David Paterson, as the paper’s public editor reports, it was in a way nothing new that the tabloid world, this time driven by social media, pumped the story. As my friend Mitch Stephens writes in A History of News, sensational rumor and news has passed from mouth to mouth since the beginning of civilization.
Still, the article by public editor Clark Hoyt in today’s New York Times raises troubling questions of whether the world of the titillating tabs can today be whipped into such fury by Twitter and the blogosphere as to darn near cripple the traditional process of responsible reporting.
Here’s the story.
Hoyt writes that a Twitter post by a New York Observer reporter about a pending Times “bombshell” caused such a buzz, first on Twitter, then in the blogosphere and finally in the mostly news (vs. mostly trash) tabs that it has led to pressure on The Times to spill the beans on a story it may or may not even be reporting.
Paterson, you’ll recall, is the governor who took office when Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace for his dalliance with a New York call girl. One of Paterson’s first acts as governor was to hold a press conference acknowledging his own past indiscretions (how weird public office has become).
Now Paterson is being pilloried for some (real? imagined?) dark secret that’s so vague no one even knows its alleged category. Yet the rumor mill has churned violently enough to force the governor to denounce to the Associated Press the “callous and sleazy” assault on his character, Hoyt reports. Its grown roots so deep in traditional media as to force the governor to answer a series of questions about the rumor during a press conference last week called to discuss an advancing snow storm.
And Paterson’s chief of staff has written to The Times’ Hoyt, who reported that he asked for “an investigation of ‘the propriety of the paper’s actions and decisions that allowed this sorry set of events to unfold.'”
I find all this both bizarre and a bit unsettling. That an utterly unsubstantiated rumor has so spun out of control online that it has become the fodder for press conference questions raises concerns about the role and responsibilities of bloggers and traditional reporters alike.
Will this prove to be THE case study chosen by propagandists intent on changing the subject and on manipulating the media through whispers on Twitter to plant stories in the press’ very core?
What chance does real news have of gaining traction today when unadulterated rumor can fill so much space and attract so much attention, both from the public and from of an already shrinking press corps?
Finally, why should a serious newspaper be asked to defend itself for not revealing what its working on? At the least, that’s a distraction. At worst, it could interfere with reporting and prompt bad decisions to rush publication — if, in fact, there’s anything to publish.
In this case, the gossip mill has savaged a governor without providing an iota of evidence and distracted a major newspaper that may, or may not, be investigating him. And that gossip mill stretches from Twitter through the blogosphere to those reporters asking questions at Paterson’s press conference.
Quite correctly, The Times has stayed mum. Its job here is to cover the news, not to make it. And if rumor-mongers are changing that role, it isn’t the news organization’s job to set them or the panting mob straight.
Or, as Hoyt writes:
(Executive Editor Bill) Keller is right when he says, “The only honorable thing I know to do in such a situation is to finish our reporting as expeditiously as possible and tell readers what we’ve learned.”