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)

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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