When The Wall Street Journal reported on its Web site on April 9 that “barring a change” Katie Couric and CBS News were “likely” to part ways and that it “could” happen after the election (those are just the qualifiers from its headline and subhead), Matthew Drudge picked it up quick as lightning on the Drudge Report.
After a few hours, the story, sourced to “people close to Couric” and executives, was taken out from behind a paid firewall, and WSJ.com watched the traffic—“definitely” one of its biggest hits of the month—roll in. At business desks everywhere, reporters were receiving e-mails telling them their editor “thought they would be interested in this story from The Wall Street Journal.” Reporters everywhere were presumably scolded and assigned. The next day it was front-page material for the New York Post and the Daily News; The Washington Post had to pull together a quick follow-up on its own.
The next day, a spokeswoman for CBS told the Post the story was “speculative”; on April 15, CBS started calling it “gossip” to the Post.
“Well, I had expected there would be big, breaking news because of how it was played and it was inside The Wall Street Journal,” said Gail Shister, a writer with The Philadelphia Inquirer and a columnist for TV Newser who competes with The Journal on the television beat. “But I read it, and in that particular story, I didn’t see anything new.”
Ms. Shister herself had written a similar story a year before. Had she lost the bead? It was hard to tell. In her Couric story, she wrote in her lede that the damage was looking so irreparable between Ms. Couric and CBS that she might leave her evening news slot after the election (though she would stay with the network).
Cindy Adams scolded The Journal, pointing out that she, too, had had the news in September: “Top execs” told her that “way way waaaaayyy down the line” Ms. Couric could be a replacement for Larry King. The Journal’s take in its headline on April 10: “A Successor to Larry King?” The story then included an anecdote about Ms. Couric lunching with ex-CBS newsman and current CNN president Jon Klein.
By nature, breaking news stories need a break: an on-the-record quote; a clean anecdote. Those are the types of stories that get prominent placement on front pages of newspapers. And if you’re missing that? Any reporter will tell you it requires a trip back to your sources to get something more.
But is that changing? Several reporters and editors say they’re noticing an increasingly changed dynamic where more stories with little fresh news are getting packaged with strong placement. We’ll call it fake news: stories that are driven by speculation, or a rehashing of collected detritus that was already circulating among blogs and the gossip mill on a reporter’s beat. As editors feel an increasing crunch by speedier deadlines and “citizen journalists” like 61-year-old Mayhill Fowler, who printed comments from an Obama fund-raiser, is the belt loosening for getting a story in the paper?
“Everyone’s trying to break through the increasingly competitive digital din,” said Mike Allen, the chief correspondent for Politico. “The temptation to hype stale or shaky theses is greater than ever, but it damages your brand and hurts both the reporters and their organizations in the long run.”
He continued: “It’s a modern incarnation of the boy who cried wolf.”
“The Web creates more urgency in editors than ever before,” said David Carr, the media columnist for The New York Times. “It used to be you came in the next day and your editor would say, ‘Well, we won today,’ or she’d say, ‘Looks like we got beat like a drum,’ and that would be the end of it. Now it’s this ongoing game of catching up and staying ahead.”
Weighing false leads versus real ones are what reporters do all day—but there’s so much of it now, and so much of it is fake!
“There’s a lot more stuff out there that’s undercooked,” said Adam Nagourney, chief political reporter for The New York Times. “I don’t find myself tracking down too many false leads … but I’ve been doing this a while.”
“Everyone is doing now what the Associated Press always did,” he continued. “You try to get a story up as soon as possible and you want to make sure it’s 100 percent right, and sometimes it takes a few tries to get it there. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The story gets better as it goes on.”
“I used to work all day on a story, and I’d get a lot more nuance into it and maybe more facts,” said Bill Carter, the longtime Times TV reporter. “But now you have to get it on the Web. So is there less consideration? Is there less of an editing function? I think probably yes. I’m not complaining about it—that’s the way it is.”
“I think the driver of it, as with all things, is the Net,” said Ms. Shister. “If a blogger picks up something on the Net, it gains currency within 120 seconds and it’s all over the civilized world. I think print feels pressure to get on the train.”