TCS Daily

Media Metaphysics

By Nick Schulz - September 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Early in the week I wrote a piece called "Media 'Con Game': Predetermined Storylines" in which I asked TCS readers to send me evidence of what I dubbed "Laphams" -- the predetermined and biased storylines reporters and journalists frequently insert into their stories. I was not expecting to be deluged with instances, not just of predetermined storylines, but of predetermined stories. As it turns out, news organizations were writing, editing and publishing stories all week about events that had not yet happened.

Now, most of these examples of media back-to-the-futurism were pikers compared to the egregious blunder made by Harper's magazine's Lewis Lapham who wrote about the entire GOP convention before it happened and for whom we've named the journalistic mistake. But the sheer number of them is revealing.

  • TCS reader Venkat Balasubramani pointed out that the Independent of London published a story about Dick Cheney's convention speech in the past tense before Cheney delivered it. Venkat has the screen grab to prove it.

  • Erica Werner of the Associated Press published a piece about Arnold Schwarzenegger's speech before the Governator delivered it (thanks to Geoffrey Kahan, Robbie Robertson, Charles Zdeb and Brian Macker for pointing it out). And David Espo, also of the AP, filed a story on Zell Miller's speech before he took the stage.

  • Mike Beeman of Michigan alerted me that Yahoo's front page had a link to a wire story on Laura Bush's convention speech prior to her ascending the dais.

  • It wasn't just at the GOP convention either that this was a problem. The Daily Kos caught Reuters reporting about Theresa Heinz Kerry's speech before she delivered it in Boston to the Democratic faithful.

  • TCS reader Michael Pollard alerted me to another pre-Lapham Lapham from Oct. 7, 2002. A few hours before President Bush gave a speech in Cincinnati, the Independent's website published a story describing the event in the past tense.

So how do these mistakes happen? Having worked on a newsroom desk, let me explain one way in which they might slip through. Political beat writers are given embargoed pre-view copies of a speech, or they listen to the orator deliver parts of it during a microphone check. That in hand, they often write much if not all of their story in advance, writing in past tense as if the event has taken place. When you work in a newsroom, you see advance and often crude versions of these stories move over the news wires well before the event occurs. Importantly, you are -- or at least you should be -- warned repeatedly never to run one of these stories until the event has taken place.

In the days of dead-tree-only media, these early drafts allowed the staff work on integrating the story into a newspaper for the next day's edition. What's new about the Internet age, of course, is that newspapers and sites are updated repeatedly and the notion of a single edition is obsolete. As this week makes abundantly clear, establishment media outlets have yet to adapt adequately and so many of these stories are being published before the events take place. It may be just a matter of hours, but hours in Internet time are like New York minutes.

In the main, the publication of stories about events that have yet to occur is harmless. Contrary to fevered concerns of the political speech police, readers are smart enough to figure out what's going on. But it does nothing to build confidence in a Fourth Estate that, as Glenn Reynolds has pointed out, is already on the verge of a meltdown. I was flooded with emails from people telling me it's this sort of break with trust -- no matter how seemingly insignificant -- that explains their unwillingness to watch the network news broadcasts and or read many of the major broadsheet papers anymore. Small things like this are indicative, to many media consumers, of the larger problems plaguing the establishment.

A final note about the media's con game with its readers and viewers. In his Harper's jeremiad, Lapham singled out Fox News, saying

"The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal -- government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden's prayer -- and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that [Richard] Hofstadter didn't stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?"

Having worked at Fox, I can assure you that had the Fox News Channel's dark lords, Roger Ailes and John Moody, caught a Fox employee pulling a stunt like Lapham's, that employee would be swift-kicked to the 6th Avenue curb (appeals to "poetic license" notwithstanding). It explains why the cable news channel embodies everything that's best about newer media. It has sized up what's wrong with the establishment media -- for starters, the insularity, arrogance, provincialism and laziness -- and it insists on doing things differently and better. And it helps explain why during this convention, Fox drew higher ratings than not just its "rival" CNN, but network behemoths ABC, CBS and NBC, too.


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