This guest post was written by Stuart Pearlman, a friend of the firm, former colleague, member of The Wisemen and the fearless leader of Pearlman Public Relations. Additionally, Stuart serves as a strategic advisor to The Gutes, so we’re happy to post his thoughts here.
A skeptical view once was that freedom of speech and the press was only available if you owned an actual press. Now hundreds of millions of us virtually do. That makes it easy for just about anyone to supply and distribute fact or fiction, not to mention thoughtful or bone-headed opinions.
Recently, Arthur S. Brisbane, public editor of The New York Times, apologized for the newspaper having initially published as fact the fortunately untrue information that U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords died on the day of the shooting in Tucson. The error, which the paper quickly corrected, occurred because it was picked up from a usually good, reliable and famous source – National Public Radio – and, Mr. Brisbane said, “because of a breach in the Times’s editing defenses as it worked to cover the story quickly from a distance.”
That the Times owns a powerful, respected electronic press gives it global reach and the Internet’s picosecond-powered speed, enabling its correction to gain relatively rapid currency. Compare this situation to the idea, initially advanced by a mid-19th century minister but often misattributed to Mark Twain:
“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
Mostly, however, the near-instantaneous distribution of untruths, half-truths, venom and plain nonsense is a new price we Americans and others pay for First Amendment freedoms. Much as we have lost a lot (and maybe most) of our privacy because of data banks and data crunchers, we have also lost – to the same generations of advanced technology – our time- and patience-limited ability to sift through all that comes our way, and differentiate between reliable and unreliable facts and opinions.
So even though today’s participative Internet enables rumors to circulate instantaneously but be much more quickly followed by crowd-sourced corrections, that “lie” will still circle the globe too fast to pre-empt some actions based on bad information.
We information junkies can never specifically know many of the ingredients that make up the news we get today from so many sources. Yet we rely on those old and new media to help us plan and pursue our daily activities, and make choices that affect our health, wealth and overall well-being.
Consider the ingredients clearly printed right on the package of cookies from the grocery store. There is a calorie count and a list of how much protein, fat, sodium, sugar etc., you will consume when you bite in.
Yet when you log onto a news source, or read the paper, or access a friend’s blog, you may find a key ingredient or two of your food for thought are questionable because they came from an unidentified source. One current reflection of that condition is the significant increase in– or perhaps just more frequent and transparent acknowledgement of – the use of such sources compared to ten years ago.
In the accompanying chart, please note how often “not for attribution” language was used by reporters and editors in just one major newspaper these days compared with a decade ago.
During all of 2000, The New York Times used “spoke anonymously,” “asked not to be identified,” requested anonymity” and “on the condition of anonymity” a total of 255 times – an average of less than once each day. That figure jumped nearly 3-1/2 times daily in just a decade, topping out at 871 total instances of just those specific phrases during all of 2010, or an average of 2.39 times per day.
What happened to cause this ostensible jump in the use of unnamed sources? Is it the need to be first – a “hurry-up-with-the-fact-checking” overreaction to the occasional scoops of Drudge, Gawker and their imitators? Probably not.
After all, there once was a powerhouse columnist in America named Walter Winchell, who famously said: “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s headline.”
So was Mr. Drudge correct when he said:
“Not everything I do is gossip or bedroom. To the contrary, I think that’s just an easy label to dismiss me and to dismiss the new medium.”
The last thing this occasional column wants to do is dismiss any new media. Whether or not they are welcome to many people, they are here, and we readers and surfers cannot dismiss them or ignore them. At their best, they try to enhance how people learn and communicate. And whether such newbies are blogs or wall postings or tweets, they don’t replace old media. They change them or augment them, as first radio, then television and then the Internet have done to print media.
So perhaps the new, faster means of gathering and distributing information from and to the Web has simply made it necessary for older media – such as the Times – to further liberalize its practice. Today, the Times and others clearly accept, use and publish increasing amounts information from unidentified sources. One view is such media do not want to be seen as too slow and stodgy to compete. A more reasonable view is they are just being more transparent about doing so, responding to the flap over some notorious misleading or just-plain-made-up stories that rained down around the middle of the past decade.
A lot of these unidentified sources (only some of whom may be PR people or other possibly reliable information suppliers) were simply following the attention-getting but questionable practice of seeming to know something important that is not really known, and seeming not to know when it actually is.
There has never been a shortage of people to offer unvetted or misleading information. Now, paired with advanced technologies, this human tendency leads us to yet another new communications era. And with a seemingly infinite supply of information, it is much, much harder to assess, use and manage what we learn. So all we can do is acknowledge unavoidable, continual confusion …and continually adapt.
Or we could look at this latest who-said-what trend in a less alarmist way – that it only seems more important than it is. Put another way, are unnamed sources simply another 21st century manifestation of how modern technology feeds the age-old need to “dish?” Virtually forever, people like to yak about and pass along anything interesting and preferably sensational, especially if it enables the “disher” and the “dishee” to feel and seem like true insiders.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s granddaughter was once quoted as saying: “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.”
Were she alive today, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, with just a few keystrokes, would never sit alone. But now as then, she could also not be sure if her seatmate were sharing gossip or Gospel.