Stelter: Modern news culture is like a fireworks show

Brian Stelter and David Carr’s stories in Sunday’s New York Times complemented each other quite well. Stelter observed that today’s news culture reminds him of fireworks shows, with “individual bursts of light that appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast.” Carr focused on perhaps the best fireworks operator of them all, the late Andrew Breitbart.

What’s interesting about Stelter’s story is that he notes the darkness that follows each explosion:

Fireworks like “KONY 2012” burn more brightly than they would have in the past, but for better or worse, they tend to be extinguished faster than ever, too. Just ask Jeremy Lin, who’s no longer a source of “Linsanity,” or Karen Handel, who’s no longer a top official at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation … In a few days, ask Hilary Rosen, whose comments about Ann Romney sparked a brief but furious “mommy war” last week. …

Media, of course, play into this. Twitter provides reporters prepackaged trend stories — no need to dig up three anecdotes to substantiate a theory. News sites compete to grab a share of available attention, with the flood of stories on that one subject crowding out anything else. (God help the technology reporter who digs up a story the day that Facebook buys Instagram or the new iPad is unveiled.)

As Stelter points out, some of those forgotten stories are follow-ups and reactions to yesterday’s big news. To mix his metaphor, today’s big story sucks up all the oxygen that could have sustained yesterday’s.

Media’s behavior in these circumstances is understandable — news sells papers, I was told at my first job. But I wonder if the overall effect of focusing intensely, for a short time, on one story after another is decreased impact across all the stories. Robin Sloan compares the constant “liking” and sharing on the Web to a “flashlight whipping around the room.” By the time your eyes adjust and focus, the light is gone.

Carr writes about Andrew Breitbart, the arsonist of the click-driven news culture:

Mr. Breitbart specialized in teasing a small ember of a story, whether it was an inconsistency or a gaffe, and dumping gasoline on it until it blew up — sometimes on him, sometimes on others. “If you do a good enough job, you can force them to make a mistake,” he wrote in his book. “When they do, you must be ready to exploit it.”

As reporters run to the next story, it’s worth remembering that some of these stories don’t simply “go viral” on their own. Sometimes people like Breitbart are pushing them.

Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said that Mr. Breitbart “used the tools of invective and polemic to change the conversation, to try to turn it to his advantage.”

There have always been people like that, but they’re newly empowered. They reach millions of people, whose sharing and retweeting becomes a story in itself.

These intense news fires have their casualties, Carr notes: Shirley Sherrod, ACORN, Anthony Weiner. And perhaps the arsonist himself:

“If Twitter ever killed anyone, it was Andrew,” said Mr. Labash of The Weekly Standard. “Andrew was a magnet for hatred, and he used Twitter for a full frontal assault, a tool of combat.”

All worth considering as we fly like moths to the flame.

Related: Howard Kurtz says the Ann Romney flap is just the latest product of the outrage industry (The Daily Beast)

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  • Anonymous


    Well said!

    “All worth considering as we fly like moths to the flame.” is exactly
    the phrase that bothered me most about this article.

    Mr. Myers helplessly
    throws his hands up in the air lamenting “Oh what can we do in this era of twitter et. al.? This is beyond our (main stream media’s) control!”

    This, while spending a good deal of the article treating Andrew Breitbart as a journalist.
    This, from the same Poynter that spent several articles indignantly lambasting Mr. Daisey and calling him a liar numerous times when he dared to take on a corporation.
    This, from the same Poynter who has never used the word lie or liar in conjunction with Mr. Breitbart or his offspring James O’Keefe (who is also considered a journalist at Poynter.)
    This, from the same Poynter who doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with the NPR ombudsman fighting for NOT disclosing when a subject of a favorably-portrayed on-air piece is also a corporate sponsor.

    But Mr. Myers will spend time on the interesting fireworks and darkness.
    As if THAT is what journalism is about.

    If an organization whose tag is “Standing for journalism, strengthening democracy” considers this perversion of journalism newsworthy, what choice are citizens left with except to fly like moths to the flame?

  • Anonymous

    ‘All worth considering as we fly like moths to the flame.’  Speak for yourself.  And spare us the blame the medium (Twitter, Facebook etc.) arguments, that won’t wash anymore.  When journalism becomes nothing more than a corporate owned profit driven propaganda machine, only certain, shall we say less savory, elements of the population became interested in pursuing it as a career.  Take a look around at the people who came up In the business, print and broadcast, to became producers, editors and talent in the last 20 years, this is not an issue that started with the New Media, it’s been going on for decades.    And as the primary focus of the ‘Press’   shifts more and more away from the dissemination of credible information, accuracy, truth, in favor of anything that generates “buzz” in the name of profit, that was the beginning of the end of  for those interested in maintaining credibility.   

    Journalism than devolves into nothing more than a succession of ever more desperate players  successively plunging into the flame, sacrificing everything and everyone in the process for nothing more than the hope of achieving fame and recognition which will lead to a marketable  Brand which will then grant them the chance at a Bankable career.  We’ve already got enough expressions of that throughout society. If this is what journalism ultimately devolves into,  the very concept of a Free Press, independent and accountable, will cease to exist beyond schools of journalism.