Useless Scoops

Like many people who were annoyed by the New York Post‘s “scoops” yesterday–early reports claiming, erroneously, that 12 people had died in the Boston bombings, and that police were zeroing in on two suspects (one of whom was a “Saudi national,” and another who had dark skin and a “foreign accent”), I really appreciated Paul Waldman’s meditation today at TAP on real and bogus “scoops:”

There are two kinds of scoops, the real and the ephemeral. A real scoop is a story that would not have come to light, either at all or at least for a considerable amount of time, had it not been for your reporting. When a reporter exposes corruption, or details the unforeseen consequences of official policy, or even just offers a compelling portrait of people whose story wouldn’t have otherwise been told, she has gotten a genuine scoop. Then there’s the far more common kind, what many in the media consider a scoop but is no scoop at all. That’s when you discover and publish some piece of information that everyone is going to learn very soon, but you happen to be the one who got it out ten minutes or ten seconds before your competitors….

Media organizations, particularly television news operations, are obsessed with this second kind of scoop, despite the fact that not only does it offer nothing of value to their audience, it doesn’t even give them any advantage in the hyper-competitive arena in which they operate. Nobody ever said, “I used to watch MSNBC, but then I heard that CNN went on the air with the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial a full 30 seconds before any other network, so I’m watching CNN from now on.” When everybody is going to have a piece of news in seconds, getting it first doesn’t help you at all. Nobody remembers and nobody cares, nor should they.

But if you’re obsessed with getting it first, you end up not getting it right.

That happened with the New York Post, whose dubious stories from Boston have remained at the top of the aggregator I use most for two straight days, and it happened even more notoriously last summer with both CNN and Fox News sending out false reports on the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision because their reporters raced off to file after listening to the first couple of sentences of the decision’s announcement.

Unfortunately, when it comes to political news, this media obsession with “firster faster” reflects the inbred habits of Our Nation’s Capital, where the currency of routine conversation is often (as I used to mockingly say) to know something completely unimportant a few minutes before the person with whom you are talking. Sometimes Politico exemplifies and even parodies this vice, but by no means invented it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.