Boston Illustrates Messiness of Real-Time Reporting

As it happens, Discovery Channel will air a documentary Sunday titled “All the President’s Men Revisited,” focusing on an event still etched in our collective memory as representing the apex of investigative journalism.

The era and legwork depicted stand in stark contrast to the media coverage the last several days emanating from Boston, where TV viewers and social media have illustrated the messiness of real-time reporting, reflecting the influence of new technologies and channels that didn’t exist when the Watergate story broke more than 40 years ago.

As the Discovery doc notes, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were for a time essentially alone in covering the Watergate story, their scoops landing in the morning editions of the Washington Post. There was no CNN or MSNBC to pick up their stories and gab about them, no website to feed with constant updates, no Twitter to disseminate links to their stories.

Today, it’s unimaginable a horde of competitors and bloggers wouldn’t be poring over every word, with some issuing partisan defenses of the White House and others ratcheting up the pressure to tweet each new scoop before someone else has the opportunity to pounce on it.

The net effect has been to push all kinds of erroneous information into the atmosphere, from CNN’s initial reports of a “dark skinned male” and arrests being made to the New York Post featuring the wrong suspects on its pages.

The mix of limitless time to fill and limited information invariably unleash all kinds of silliness. One local radio host in L.A., for example, kept referencing the A&E series “The First 48,” and citing how important it was to come up with a break in the case during the first two days — her expertise seemingly having been gleaned entirely from watching reality TV. Others took to Twitter referencing scripted programs like “The Americans” and “Homeland,” which is, understandably, how many of us now process such events.

However wistful Woodward, Bernstein and other veteran ink-stained wretches sound in the “All the President’s Men” documentary, journalism certainly wasn’t error-free in the good ol’ days, and there’s much to be gained from the speed with which information is currently available. Watching the coverage late Thursday night and into Friday morning (when a more restrained CNN partly redeemed itself) was riveting — provided, that is, one didn’t fret too much about how little new we were learning, the endless repetition or the errors being splayed out, on TV and via social media, in the melee to be first delivering any new crumb of information.

Inasmuch as it’s a given the rules of the journalism game have forever changed, what’s needed is a sober discussion about guidelines — about what’s considered an acceptable level of inaccuracy amid fast-moving events, especially given the possibility of doing real damage to those wrongly implicated or misrepresented.

Of course, it will require a more sedate, sober moment to have that conversation. And these days — as the media careen from one crisis (some real, others manufactured) to the next — who really has the time for something like that?

Maybe we should schedule the meeting in a dark garage, since the explanation, albeit in a different context, would be much the same: Follow the money.

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