The Lab Rat Theory

THE LAB RAT THEORY….I have a theory that the combination of Romenesko, who pioneered 24/7 media navel gazing, and the rise of the blogosphere, which amplifies every jaywalking ticket into Murder 1, has turned American journalists into quivering masses of jelly. They’re sort of like those lab rats who receive nonstop electrical shocks completely at random and eventually go insane because they don’t know what they’re expected to do and what they aren’t.

Exhibit 1: Yesterday’s debacle at the LA Times, in which a mere few hours of pressure over a bogus scandal caused seasoned executives to panic, rip up the weekend paper, and accept the resignation of their editorial page editor. They couldn’t recognize a tempest in a teapot when they were staring straight at it.

Exhibit 2: Not convinced? Then check this out: the Washington Post has a story on its front page right now about an electronic glitch that caused an incorrect headline to appear on their website for 51 seconds on Thursday. It’s a scandal!

Leonard Downie Jr., the newspaper’s executive editor, said he was upset that the newsroom was not notified. “This was a big story,” Downie said. “The fact that we had a wrong report up for 51 seconds–even though it was unintentional–should have been known to us in the newsroom.”

Brady said he learned of the foulup early yesterday afternoon after a tip had been carried on the Media Bistro blog Fishbowl DC.

“The mistake I made was in not alerting people that it had happened because it was a high-profile story,” [online editor Jim] Brady said. “We should have been up front.”

Can we all please Get. A. Grip. If the executive editor of the Washington Post thinks a 51-second software hiccup is a “big story,” he might want to think about early retirement. The job is obviously too stressful for him.

The flip side of this is how, like those confused lab rats, journalists also frequently underreact to genuine problems merely because it’s the unwashed blog hordes who are yelling about it. That can be a topic for another day.