May
15
2013

The Problem With Journalism? Scott Pelley Blames the Internet

pelleymap_480x360When big-time reporters decide to try their hands at media criticism, the results are usually disappointing–but they can also be quite revealing.

So when a video of CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley started to making the rounds, the headlines associated with it piqued my interest. Over at the Weekly Standard, it was "CBS Anchor: 'We Are Getting Big Stories Wrong, Over and Over Again.'"

Well, that sounds like pretty dramatic self-criticism. But, as expected, Pelley's media criticism mostly misses the mark. 

Give him points for drama, though. "Our house is on fire," he warned near the beginning of his talk at Quinnipiac University. The house is the "magnificent mansion that we call American journalism." And Pelley did say what the headlines suggested: "We're getting the big stories wrong, over and over again."

So what are those stories? Pelley specifically points out one: In the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre, he inaccurately reported that the shooter's mother worked at the school. That was, in his words, "absolutely wrong."

So why do things like this happen? Well, Pelley attempts to answer by pointing a finger at technology:

Never before in human history has more information been available to more people.  But at the same time, never before in human history has more bad information been available to more people.

He moves on to the Boston marathon bombings. "Our nation was attacked by terrorists," he explains, "and amateur journalists became digital vigilantes."

"Innocent people were marked as suspects," he goes on, "their pictures and their names ricocheted all over Twitter and Facebook and Reddit."

Now we're getting to the real point. He goes on:

That fire that started on the Internet spread to our more established newsrooms as well. In a world where everyone is a publisher, no one is an editor. And that is the danger we face today.

Editors are the people who decide that some information should be vetted before it is aired. Yes, the existence of the Internet means that rumors can spread faster–but did that really cause CNN to botch a report about a "dark-skinned" suspect, or the New York Post to put a photo of two young men on its cover, falsely suggesting they were suspects in the bombing?

To Pelley, the problem is clear: "Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. That's not journalism. That's gossip."

While that's a mischaracterization, the problem with journalism isn't the existence of Twitter; it's the failure of some journalists to exercise sound judgment.

The idea that the big problem with journalism is that TV networks air breaking news that is inaccurate lets media off the hook.  The problem with coverage of the Iraq War was not that reporters listened to Facebook or Twitter, neither of which existed at the time of the invasion; rather, they listened too often to elite sources who were wrong. And they continue to rely on official sources to steer the news agenda.

The Internet, if anything, provides for a way for people to hear from a more diverse set of voices, and to act as a check on big media.

Pelley was right in one respect: The media's obsession with being "first" on a story, even when that means beating out your broadcast rivals by a few seconds, is a waste of time.  True enough–and that's a problem that is in no way related to the dangers of Reddit.

"Maybe a touch of humility would serve us better, and serve the public better as well," Pelley declares. No argument there. But then, moments later, Pelley pronounced: "America has the best journalism in the world."  Hey–what happened to humility!

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.