Scott Pelley of CBS News raised eyebrows and passions among journalists at a Quinnipiac University luncheon the other day when he said, "Our house is on fire."
He was talking about challenges to the news business from within, as reporters become careless in a rush to be 'first'. And, from outside, where social media supply what he labeled "more bad information" than at any time in history.
Pelley is a worthy recipient of the 'Fred Friendly First Amendment Award' that provided the occasion for his remarks. But in assembling the facts he was unfair to his profession, while overlooking the real issues igniting fires that threaten journalism today.
Referring to the Newtown school shooting and Boston Marathon bombing, Pelley said, "We're getting big stories wrong, over and over again." Putting social media aside, that's a gross exaggeration.
Errors are regrettable but nothing new when journalists operate under pressure, nor are they directly linked to social media, which Pelley went on to lambaste. "We were attacked by terrorists," he said, "and amateur journalists became amateur vigilantes."
The term amateur journalists is an oxymoron. Those gossiping via Twitter and Facebook are not journalists. If news professionals were to put stock in such chatter without verification they would be wrong, but there is little evidence of that really happening.
The wild frontier of social media shouldn't be conflated with the established world of journalism.
Pelley's other main point was that journalists place too much importance on being first with a story, rather than having the patience to make certain it's right. That, too, is valid - but getting a scoop has driven journalists since the profession began. And, to some extent, it actually does matter. Viewers changing channels during high-drama events do get a sense of which network is ahead on a story and which is lagging behind, which is why ABC benefited greatly by fast reporting from its Boston affiliate during the days following the bombing.
Coverage of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, and particularly Walter Cronkite's reporting on CBS, is often cited as the gold standard for handling breaking news in the pre-Internet era. Cronkite's work, brilliant as it was, along with that of affiliate KRLD, contained many errors in the early going, among them: that a suspect was under arrest, when in fact none was; that a secret service agent was killed; that a witness saw a "colored man" fire the shots.
In his memoir years later, Cronkite boasted, "We beat NBC onto the air by almost a minute."
Here are three areas I wish Scott Pelley had touched upon:
...First, the biggest threats to established media are cutbacks. As I write this, new layoffs are reported at two New York papers, and NBC has canceled the news magazine "Rock Center." Accurate reporting requires layers of editors and fact-checkers, and it's those layers that are going up in flames.
...Second, media shouldn't really be judged on emergencies that captivate the nation's attention as much as they should on digging up the truth about topics like government and the economy, to name just two. Does anyone fear the impact of Twitter and Facebook in these areas? Need we worry about journalists trying to be 'first' with this type of news?
...Finally, conventional news outlets are being influenced too much by creeping tabloidism and, in the case of electronic media, by an overdose of politically-weighted opining. These matters are governed largely by the business office, by the people also responsible for sweeping cutbacks.
In the digital age there undoubtedly is more bad information than ever before. That's not the fault of the choir Scott Pelley was addressing at a luncheon of journalists. Their house, as he referred to it, isn't on fire, but it is being fired upon.
- Peter Funt's new book, "Cautiously Optimistic," is available at Amazon.com. His columns are distributed by Cagle Cartoons Inc.