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.”
But with so much more information out there, what exactly do print publications do when it’s on that train? And will that force print publications to change their relationship entirely?
“The role used to be that the way information was propagated was by the media, and it was the only way to get it out there,” said Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired. “Now the role of the media is to add value to that kind of conversation and ask how much weight to give it. It’s not so much breaking news as much as legitimizing news.”
He continued: “How do I add value? Really only two ways—either you have a source, or make a call or add a dimension to a story that didn’t exist. You add your own insight, and you might be able to analyze to give it a context that’s worth noting.”
Fake news is not to be confused with false reports. But the latter is a great culprit for creating the former. Back in November, NPR reported that at an Iowa campaign stop, Hillary Clinton had stiffed a waitress. The story boomeranged around blogs and news outlets. One problem: It wasn’t true.
“The speed thing—100 reporters jumping on a story—actually speeds up the vetting,” said one Clinton beat reporter.
Drudge jumped on it; so did the ABC campaign blog, as did many others. But when the Clinton press team jumped back and showed it had left a $100 tip on the $157 bill, well, NPR was forced to run a correction.
And for everyone else: another news item!
Back in February, Bill Clinton made a statement sizing up the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“You have to decide what this election is about. You have to decide what makes the best president. You want someone with the right vision, the right plans and ability to get the job done. If that’s the test, I don’t think the question is close.”
Beyond that, he said, “all the rest is smoke and mirrors.”
The de-contextualized quote was jumped on. The Huffington Post headline: “Bill Clinton Calls Obama Campaign ‘Smoke And Mirrors.
Many “reports” followed correcting or contextualizing the quote. More fake news!
“Drudge rules the world,” another political reporter said. And indeed, fake news owes a lot to reporters’ habit of Refreshing Drudge for the Latest.
“I think the Web is an elegant tool, but I can tell you from personal experience at The New York Times that there is a change in expectation of metabolism and urgency around the Web,” said Mr. Carr.
He said that back in the days when you’d get ink all over your hands, big beats would have three or four sources, and if you stay locked into them, you’re fine. But now? “Every beat has sort of adopted this increased metabolism and can get beat on any subject on any number of sources. There are curveballs everywhere.”
The result is everyone has to hustle. “Editors are waving at you, and waving at you to come up with something that matches and covers you now.”
Because that’s another way the Web has changed journalism. It used to be a rumor circulated, or was published on a blog, or even in a tabloid newspaper, and you’d check The Times the next day to read the sober follow-up. How much of it was true? Often, you’d search The Times and find it nowhere.
But fake news is so viral, it declares its own importance. If millions of your readers think Hillary Clinton stiffed a waitress, you have to write about it, right?
Wired editor Chris Anderson thinks the whole concept of “news” is changing. There’s no value in really breaking stories anymore. Once you’ve published, everyone’s got it, right? It’s just a question of who can rake in the traffic.
There’s the moment when Bob Novak declared in a piece in November that the Clinton campaign was sitting on top of a big bombshell about Obama. It was the dark heart of fake news: speculative, oddly sourced and, finally, without any substance. How big? There’s no saying. Will it ever come out? Will it ever be news? But there it was, in black and white, the story that launched a million more stories.
“Would he have done that 20 years ago?” asked Adam Nagourney. “I mean, I don’t know. It never struck me as peculiar to this culture for him to say that.”
And did The Journal cry wolf? The day before the Couric story ran, The New York Times published a story on a possible arrangement where CNN would contract news to CBS. What was a perfectly suitable incremental story suddenly got huge play on Drudge; first with a headline, then with a link to The Times, then with an enlarged picture of a tearful Katie Couric.
“The difference with incremental journalism is that the increments are measured in minutes and not days and weeks in the way it used to be,” said Mr. Carr.
What did The Times do with the Katie Couric story? Nothing till April 11. Its own follow-up appeared at the bottom right-hand corner of its Business Day section.
That story moved the ball forward: It reported on a meeting that Katie Couric had with CBS executives where they discussed the possibility of her departure, a month and a half before The Journal story was published; but, The Times reported, a decision would be made after the election, or possibly much sooner.
Between the lines, the story read as a lecture on fake news.
“However, rumors from CBS News and reported in the news media may have, inadvertently or not, done what the meeting failed to do: ensured Ms. Couric’s early departure.”
“Couric’s Fate Was Topic A in CBS Suite.”