The New York Post's erroneous Page 1 "exclusive" earlier this month - that Sen. John Kerry had picked Richard Gephardt as his vice-presidential running mate - is but the latest manifestation of what I've long seen as the silliest of all journalistic sports: the rush to be first.
As the campaign season heats up, we're bound to see more demonstrations of this scoop mentality, culminating in election night, when all the networks - cable and broadcast - will vie to see which one can beat the others by nanoseconds in predicting which candidate will win which state.
The Post's Gephardt gaffe caused no real harm. After all, we're talking about the New York Post of "Headless Body in Topless Bar" fame. But in the last presidential election, the rush to be first was indeed harmful. All the networks reported that Al Gore had won Florida and, hence, the presidency. When that projection was quickly reversed, it left a lasting impression in many quarters that George W. Bush - with the help of the Supreme Court, his brother (and Florida governor) Jeb, and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris - had stolen the election. Such perceptions can be enormously corrosive to the credibility of the democratic process and to the ability of a president to govern.
Could that happen again this year? The networks say no. But journalists always promise reform after they've stumbled badly. Then they make the same mistakes again, whether they're focusing on a politician's sexual peccadilloes rather than his substantive policies or ... rushing to be first.
But what's the rush?
Reporters and editors will tell you that trying to break news first keeps them and their news organizations alert. They say it also impresses sources, who are more likely to return calls, initiate contacts, or even leak valuable information to reporters they see as aggressive, well-connected news-breakers. Being first is also supposed to show readers and viewers that a given news organization is on top of things.
Timely, aggressive reporting can break important stories and bring attention to issues that otherwise might be neglected. But too often news organizations want to be first for the sake of being first, and the arguments they advance to justify that objective are "rationalizations for the ingrained professional pathology of the press," says Robert Lichter, president of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs. "At a time when you can find news instantly on the Internet or cable television, no one cares - or knows or remembers - which reporter beat another by three minutes. It has zero importance to the public or to any news source."
It's all a big ego trip, and over the years, several prominent journalists have acknowledged as much.
"It's mostly ego ... mostly bragging rights," NBC's Tom Brokaw told me several years ago. Twenty-five years after he broke the story that President Nixon would name Henry Kissinger as secretary of State, Dan Rather broke into a grin of remembered triumph, likening it to "catching a touchdown pass when I was in high school."
Ego - individual and institutional - is about the only legitimate explanation for the rush to be first, especially in the era of the 24/7 news cycle, when being first is measured in seconds and being wrong is easier than ever. Reputable reporters agree that getting it right is more important than getting it first. But in today's overheated news climate, reporters often can delude themselves into thinking they have something right because they're determined to have it first. Live feeds and fierce competition among 24-hour cable networks have robbed television reporters of the time they once had to think and double-check before broadcasting stories, and with newspapers increasingly urging reporters to post stories on their websites well before their print deadlines, newspaper and newsmagazine reporters face similar problems.
I have to admit that when I was a cub reporter working for a small daily newspaper in one of the Los Angeles suburbs, - long before cable or the Web was even a glimmer on the media horizon - I was certainly thrilled on those rare occasions when I or one of my colleagues beat the big Los Angeles Times on a story. That kind of David-and-Goliath experience still resonates, so I can certainly understand why the folks at USAviation.com were delighted when they beat the big boys to the news that Kerry had chosen Sen. John Edwards as his running mate. They did so by parlaying a tip from an airplane mechanic who had seen the repainted "Kerry-Edwards" 757 in a Pittsburgh airport hanger.
But at a time when surveys consistently show a decline in media credibility, when the news media are still reeling from the damage done by Jayson Blair at The New York Times, Stephen Glass at the New Republic, and Jack Kelley at USA Today, I think major news organizations should stop worrying about being first and focus more on being right.
• David Shaw is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. ©2004 Los Angeles Times.