Saturday, June 27, 2009

Big media's two-part wake up call

Coverage of two recent news events firmly set a bright dividing line between the old media world and the new one we’re very much in. Two media mavericks — one essentially an aggregator with attitude, the other a Web site long thought to be captive of the tabloid mentality — caught traditional media flat-footed, proving, first, that the little guys in media are gaining ground on the big guys; second, in some ways, there are no big or little guys in media anymore.

The flood-the-zone coverage of the death of Michael Jackson revealed how the hierarchy of American media has changed. More than any other recent celebrity event, Michael’s passing took breaking news out of the hands of the established leaders of electronic media.

TMZ, the celebrity Web site and cable channel owned by Time Warner, has long been regarded as a renegade enterprise with a taste for the salacious and the eccentric. TMZ gives priority online to ambush videos of certain higher-magnitude stars in Hollywood, a style of journalism given to breathless disclosures of whether a star took a doggie bag home after dining out.

But even before Michael Jackson died on Thursday, TMZ was demonstrating its ability to perform solid gumshoe reporting; to capitalize on knowing the celebrity terrain, and knowing it very well.

The Los Angeles Times, beaten to the punch in its own backyard, owned up on Friday:
Just after noon on Thursday, paramedics responded to a 911 call at Jackson's Holmby Hills mansion. Less than an hour later, TMZ -- the same outlet that broke Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade during a 2006 DUI arrest … landed the scoop that the multiplatinum pop singer had gone into cardiac arrest. At 2:44 p.m., it beat rivals by informing the world of his death, which occurred at 2:26 p.m. …

CNN was still relying on “reports” from other media and telling viewers it could not independently verify the death. Only when the coroner's office confirmed Jackson's death did CNN relay it as outright fact to viewers, at 4:25 p.m.

MSNBC was similarly enamored of itself and its traditional sources. For several, several minutes after TMZ had announced Jackson was dead, MSNBC and NBC News hemmed and hawed, waiting for their own people (or The Associated Press) to swoop in and validate or disprove everything.

It’s curious that MSNBC didn’t even run the TMZ report in a fully attributed context (“TMZ: Michael Jackson is dead”), which would have given them perfectly reasonable cover if TMZ was wrong. MSNBC waited until the Los Angeles Times confirmed Jackson's death before airing anything that put Jackson in the existential past tense.

But between the time TMZ broke the story and when The Times weighed in, MSNBC didn’t even mention the TMZ report, apparently deciding that a celebrity news outlet that covered fender-benders of the rich & famous couldn’t be trusted to get this story right. It was like TMZ didn’t even exist. It was a huge misreading of the sources TMZ has on the ground in L.A., and a mistake MSNBC probably won’t make again.

“That's typical,” TMZ managing editor Harvey Levin told The Times during a phone interview. “No matter what they say, people know we broke the story. That's how competitors handle it. There's no issue about our credibility.”

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A few days earlier at the White House, traditional media was put on notice that the game had changed. At a news conference on Tuesday, President Obama recognized Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post for a question. It was partly a nod to Pitney’s most recent role as a journalist — over the previous week he’d been live-blogging events out of Iran at a fanatically dedicated clip — and partly an Obama overture to the Iranian people (Pitney was to ask a question relayed to him by an Iranian citizen).

The decision to call on Pitney for a question was, thus, obviously orchestrated to some degree; Pitney knew ahead of time he was on the short list of reporters who would be asked to offer a question — a fact that got mainstream media’s knickers in a deep twist.

“My main feeling is they could have accomplished this without taking what in my experience is the unprecedented step of planting a designated hitter in the briefing room,” said Peter Maer of CBS Radio, told The New York Times on Wednesday. Maer’s experience covering presidents goes back to Jimmy Carter. His chosen medium of communication goes back to Guglielmo Marconi.

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Despite the similar objections from the mainstream press, the Pitney coup was a validation of an obvious known: the Internet, social media and the blogosphere have rocked the standing perception of what news is and where people go to get it. Journalism today is less about being a one-directional gatekeeper than it is about being the shepherd of a semi-permeable firewall that permits traffic in two directions.

The fact that The Huffington Post — whose editorial voice stems largely from the content of news services, bloggers and other Web sites — would be recognized by the Obama administration as an equal partner in the White House press corps gave D.C. journalists the shock of the new. Obama recognizes that paradigm shift underway in the news business; he gave new media its just propers on Tuesday.

“The president had no idea what the question would be,” said Arianna Huffington, HuffPost editor-in chief, to The New York Times. “So much for an orchestrated conspiracy. This was an exciting moment for new media and citizen engagement. It’s a pity so many in the traditional media didn’t get it.”

Mainstream media has lately been on the receiving end of many lessons about how the future works. Witness two more.
Image credits: TMZ logo: © 2009 TMZ Productions Inc. Nico Pitney: CNN.

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