Gossip Wants to Be Free
In defense of online scandal mongering.
On January 17, 1998, Matt Drudge posted a siren-decorated "World Exclusive" declaring that Newsweek had spiked a story regarding President Clinton and a certain 23-year-old former intern. The report and several follow-ups sat there on his site like radioactive turds, ignored by the rest of the media universe for four agonizing days.
This is how much tighter the rumor cycle is now: On February 12, 2004, Drudge set off another alarm, this one about an investigation by reporters from Time, ABC News, and The Hill of a possible fling between John Kerry and a former intern. The report was immediately picked up by talk radio, by British newspapers, by New York tabloids, and (pre-emptively, one assumes) by media ethics hand wringers such as Editor & Publisher. Within four days both Kerry and his alleged hottie had responded to press inquiries with firm public denials, which were duly noted in the serious media outlets. By day five it was all over but the shouting about What This Means for Journalism.
"There definitely is a media food chain," the oft-quoted, dour media critic Tom Rosenstiel told The Boston Globe's Mark Jurkowitz in one of the dozens of ethics postmortems. "What you get is…the bad journalism driving out the good."
Rosenstiel has it backward. If there was indeed no affair (and Drudge continues to suggest there was, pointing out that Kerry's oral denial is much weaker than Monica Lewinsky's signed affidavit), having the story vetted and slapped down by elite news organizations before it could gain political traction should be hailed as a triumph of substance over scandal. Instead, you had reactions like this, from Greensboro, North Carolina, News and Record Editor John Robinson: "Welcome to the scary new world of stories without substantiation and media without accountability. In this land, truth is simply an afterthought."
The Kerry story shared a theme with several other mini-scandals that bubbled up in February, including President Bush's National Guard service, a doctored photograph showing Kerry with Jane Fonda, and various Web outlets' willingness to publish embargoed exit poll data during primary elections. All these stories involve media gatekeepers expressing anxiety about losing control of the gate. Amateurs have increasing access to information once kept safely within the walls of the professional media, and they are doing whatever they want with it. As Bob Steele, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, lamented to Jurkowitz, "The means of dissemination have changed, and what is really significant, of course, is that anybody can own the printing press."
Others see the proliferation of publishers as a positive development, and enjoy poking fun at the grumpy graybeards. In the words of Slate columnist Jack Shafer, who has drawn establishment fire for championing the right to publish breaking exit poll data, "You're going up against a journalistic priesthood, and that priesthood feels threatened."
The current exit polling consortium, the National Election Pool, makes all its paying members sign an agreement to suppress the numbers on election day until the polls close. But as Shafer points out, "journalists love to gossip," so word quickly leaks to such eager publishers as Slate, The Drudge Report, National Review Online, and Wonkette. "It's supposed to be proprietary, because we promised Congress in painful hearings we wouldn't let out any statistics," Linda Mason of CBS told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Drudge is breaking a promise we made. It's annoying."
But the promise being broken is an agreement between the news organizations and the National Election Pool. Non-participating reporters aren't parties to that pact, and as Shafer has noted, "Journalists aren't in the business of concealing information but in setting it free."
Shafer wrote that in a Slate debate with Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review's CampaignDesk.org, which repeatedly has criticized sites that publish exit poll data early. Lovelady's reply demonstrated nicely how legitimate concern over journalistic practices is often inextricably linked with gatekeeper hostility toward upstarts. His argument, in Slate and elsewhere, quickly morphs into a weblog bashing session. "We've said it before and we'll say again: The great thing about the Internet is that anyone can start a blog—and the terrible thing about the Internet is that anyone can start a blog," he wrote. "Weblogs that aspire to affect public affairs, including this one, are piggybacking on the extraordinary freedoms that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the press."
There are two decent non-blog-related arguments for not letting the masses know what Dan Rather knows on election night. They're well stated by John Ellis, the former Fox News election data consultant who famously helped call the 2000 presidential election for his cousin George W. Bush at 2:15 a.m. (and less famously withdrew the call an hour later, once the Florida Election Commission announced that its previous numbers were faulty). He points out that "often the information [in exit polls] is unreliable": There are several different interpretative models that can be used, there are multiple "tranches" of information that get spit out during a day, and voters don't always tell the truth about what they did in the ballot booth. The second argument: "If my guy was losing by 15, and I was listening to [Rush] Limbaugh, I might think, 'Well shit, I'm not going to vote when I go home, I'm just gonna work out or something.'"
Shafer's answer to the turnout conundrum is refreshingly blunt. "Journalists are not in the democracy racket," he wrote to Lovelady. "They're not in the game of empowering the populace. They are not social engineers. They need not think out the first, second, and third possible repercussion of most stories they write."
As for the less-than-ironclad reliability of exit polls, that's a problem arguably best addressed by allowing the maximum number of people to read, publish, and chew on those numbers at will. When only 10,000 people in the country have access to sensitive, breaking information, that scarcity will drive up the price of both the data and the interpretation of it. Those outside the church walls, meanwhile, will distort the importance and even content of what's inside. Open the floodgates, and three things will happen: The exaggerated impact of the data will be lessened, consumers will become far more sophisticated about calibrating its accuracy, and the information itself will be improved by distributed intelligence.
The same might be argued for Drudge's publishing the latest rumors about reporters digging up scandal stories. Most readers already build in a Drudge discount, and meanwhile a horde of new reporters, professional and amateur, are set on the trail of a potentially newsworthy story (even if the potential newsworthiness of the Kerry tale was mostly lost on me). "It essentially raises the marginal productivity of every other reporter to go and find that story," says University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, who has written widely about the role of information in markets. "We'll get a lot more stories, a lot better information as a result."
Levitt also hypothesizes that such revelations could have a negative effect on news gathering as well, by reducing the likelihood that an investigative hack will be first to a scoop, and he points out that false information—especially when spread deliberately—is downright damaging. John Ellis certainly knows from his own experience of prematurely calling the 2000 election what it's like to be on the other end of a scandal-sniffing press. ("The damage in terms of my consulting business was palpable," he says. "It shut me down, basically.") But that's another argument for allowing for several tiers of news credibility and trusting consumers' ability to sort information. If a story gets trapped in National Enquirer/Daily Mirror limbo, readers will be smart enough to apply the appropriate salt. The New York Times and Matt Drudge may despise each other, but if they both do their jobs well, we all win.