So Much Speech, So Little Caution

Let me come back, if I may, to a concern I raised recently — centering on how a sense of disproportion is taking over our political culture — as in, well, you know, that quail-hunting saga involving Dick Cheney. Whatever happened to that one, anyway?

What happened was that a hot, hot story cooled off. With the public’s interest and anxieties sated, the media moved on to the next hot topic — one we might describe as "Help, Help, Bush is Turning over Six U.S. Ports to the Arabs!!!!!" (Does a mere five exclamation points adequately reflect the rage that seized us last week?)

I write with my editor’s eyeshade on. This is about the media, my profession for four decades. It is about the media and how we do business in the age of the
Internet, when millions couldn’t be troubled to lug a newspaper into the house or to watch the TV evening news for anything but maybe, possibly, the sports.

As old ways and days fade, new ones come to life — this being a thumbnail account of how we got so worked up over Dick Cheney and the emir of Dubai.

The First Amendment to the Constitution has for 200 years protected free speech. Never before has there been so much speech: loud, angry and pretentious, as well as moderate, reasoned and informative, all of it coming to you, to all of us, all day long, everywhere, by virtue of the ongoing revolution in communications.

Under the old dispensation, newspapers, magazines and TV networks were gatekeepers. They figured out what (in their less-than-humble opinions) we needed to know. News distribution was top-down: them to us. No more. The Internet and cable TV have rendered news a horizontal proposition. If somebody has something to say, we may count on its being said — often as not in pure anger and indignation.

No one really knows how many web logs — a k a blogs — operate today, but an estimated 75 percent of Americans get some news from the Internet. The Internet community is a great cacophony: a roar with jillions of tones and tunes. Speed and choice are the (exquisitely modern) hallmarks of communications today. We want what we want, and we want it now.

In the faded old days, a newspaper not only had but also took a certain amount of time to check out stories. Due diligence wasn’t always done, but city editors could be tough customers, and readers opened their papers with at least some assurance that the matters before them on the printed page and been sorted out and combed through.

From an Internet perspective, waiting for the finished product is the equivalent of piddling. C’mon, c’mon — give it to us now! Tell it first, and ask questions later. The blogs play it this way, and more and more, the slowpoke media follow along, letting the Internet raiding parties dictate pace and focus. Thus, for all its insignificance, the Cheney story got big play because blog readers were buzzing about it. The buzz made a cold story hot.

The Dubai/U.S. ports story shows some of the dangers inherent in the new journalism’s approach. Before many American knew any port deal was brewing, many of the new media were branding the Dubai deal a threat to national security.

May I ask: Just how did these freshly minted experts know such a thing? They didn’t because they couldn’t. The pretended to know, I guess, out of pride in their credentials as Instant Experts — that and the competitor’s vital instinct. Knowing next to nothing — an increasingly common affliction — the media, old and new, jumped on the port story with both feet, leaving millions still uncertain what to think, whom to believe.

I hope I take a backseat to none in love of the First Amendment, but O, my countrymen, let’s be careful how we use such a treasure. "Look before you leap" was always a sound maxim — never sounder than now when the tendency to jump without parachute, shouting and pointing, is becoming the media trait everyone knows best.