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Breaking: Some Journalists Forced to Work on Hamster Wheels

Nothing gets journalists chattering like a debate about themselves, so I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that my post yesterday about the fixation many news outlets have with being first attracted some notice. Nearly everyone who contacted me about the piece did so to say “Amen!” Except for the poor souls whose job it is to produce micro-scoops on a daily or hourly basis. They didn’t like it so much.

Adweek actually interviewed a few journalists on the daily grind about the piece, all of whom largely defended the need to report news as quickly as possible.

But that’s not what I wrote about. I’m not trying to start a slow-news movement (although that wouldn’t be the worst thing that happened to journalism…) For that matter, I understand that for the wire services, their whole business model is based on building reputations for being fast and accurate.

So what’s the problem?

Let’s take Andrea Mitchell as an example. By any measure, Mitchell has had a truly impressive career in journalism, reporting from war zones, snagging multiple interviews with Fidel Castro, covering politics and foreign affairs for NBC News with equal parts intelligence and tenacity. Yet the story Mitchell is proudest of is breaking the news of two different running mate selections: George H.W. Bush’s choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 and John Kerry’s decision to run with John Edwards in 2004. The two “scoops” figure prominently in her official bio.

Maybe those do count as scoops—they certainly do to many people in the journalism world. But I still say: who cares? Did breaking the Edwards news force Kerry to tell us something he’d hope to keep forever secret? No. It might have altered the Kerry campaign’s timetable for announcing the Edwards pick. But no presidential candidate in the history of campaigns has stayed mum about their running mate selection up through Election Day.

Similarly, we can safely guess that at some point this summer—at least by the end of August—Mitt Romney will tell us who he has selected to be his running mate. He’s not going to stand on stage at the RNC and make us guess. Yet good political reporters are tasked with following the every move of likely running mates and reading tea leaves so that they can be the first to report Romney’s selection. It’s one thing to investigate potential picks and report on their fitness for the vice presidency. It’s another to fixate on anticipating a decision to which we will all become privy.

That’s what drove me nuts about the reporting of the health-care decision last week. Yes, everyone was itching to know what the court had decided. But it wasn’t as if we weren’t going to find out unless CNN or one of its competitors told us. As it turns out, CNN wasn’t even first—Bloomberg gets that distinction. But the folks at CNN were so focused on being first—or, more charitably, getting their news out as quickly as possible—that they didn’t bother to check the wire services that had already correctly reported that the court upheld the individual mandate.

To my mind, one of the scariest parts of Tommy Goldstein’s tick-tock on the way the decision was reported was his description of the coordinated distribution system at CNN that was immediately triggered once the network’s producer delivered his initial take. Within seconds, the network had an unequivocal banner across its screens: INDIVIDUAL MANDATE STRUCK DOWN. Its web and social media arms pushed the news out just as quickly. Was that to get the news to viewers and readers as quickly as possible or to claim credit for getting the news first? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But if it was primarily the former, wouldn’t the network have built in some fail-safe mechanisms to at least double-check that the information was correct?

I’m sure that CNN producer was well aware of the pressure to deliver a yea or nay answer as quickly as possible. And I know that the reality for many reporters these days is that their work performance includes an assessment of the speed at which they report news. But the obsession with being first pre-dates this crazy 24-7 Politico world. It was obviously once a matter of pride that has now become the expectation for every story, big and small. That may be good for business, but I still say it's not good for journalism. And I still don't care who yells “first!” in the giant comments section that is modern journalism.