Is who reports a big story more important than the story itself? Some say yes. | Bleader

Monday, July 29, 2013

Is who reports a big story more important than the story itself? Some say yes.

Posted By on 07.29.13 at 01:17 PM

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Luke--He was second
  • Luke—He was second
Last Friday morning I was on the road, but by early afternoon we’d arrived where we were going and I fired up the laptop. An e-mail jumped out at me: Torey Malatia apparently was out as general manager of WBEZ and CEO of Chicago Public Media. Better get on this! I thought. Fortunately, I discovered another e-mail that confirmed the tip: it came from a Chicago Public Media publicist announcing Malatia’s departure and providing his official statement of fond farewell. I prepared a Bleader post and alerted my editors that they should review it ASAP and get it online.

That they did. And a little later in the afternoon, they informed me, to my amazement, that I was being accused of suppressing one crucial element of the Malatia story. Frank Sennett had tweeted, "One guess which local media outlet, among all others, failed to credit Feder for the Malatia scoop."

Someone tweeted back, "Which one?"

Replied Sennett, "The Reader."

Frank Sennett is a prominent Chicago journalist. Just last year he published a book hailing the business acumen of Andrew Mason, the Groupon founder who would be fired a few months later. Earlier this year, before being laid off, he played a crucial role in guiding Time Out Chicago’s transition from print publication to website. Sennett hired Feder to write for TOC, and his loyalty to his former colleague is admirable.

A critical word from Sennett is nothing to ignore. Tal Rosenberg, the Reader’s web editor, spotted the tweet and tweeted back, "Here's the Tribune's report. Funny, they don't credit Feder either."

And Sennett fired back, "The initial report did. Regardless, two wrongs would not make a right. As you might have heard."

Journalism in Chicago is enriched by a long tradition of rough-and-ready competition. No holds are barred when it comes to getting the "scoop." The bigger the story the greater the glory in getting it first. In the old days, a scoop would stand alone for at least an edition, but in this digital age it’s usually a matter of minutes before the competition catches up or races past. Even so, it's pleasant to lead the pack, and reporters who do so consistently—such as blogger Robert Feder, whose speciality is media news—can bask in the glory due a reliable pack leader. As I prepared my story on Malatia I wondered if Feder had already posted his own and supposed he had. Whatever. Web grazers who spend their days restlessly shifting from one site to another would know who posted first, and a few would even care. But I had my story to write.

What we're dealing with here is a primal example of what we now might want to call Frank's Fallacy. Traditionally limited to the bars in which reporters gathered late at night to belligerently assert their prowess, Frank's Fallacy confuses the news with the reporting of it. It maintains that the real story is not the news story—it’s the story behind the news story, the story of who told the news story first. Sober journalists not in thrall to Frank's Fallacy—which is to say, journalists beyond adolescence, with occasional exceptions—hold that who told the news story first is not only not the real story, it's not even the story behind the story. Any reporter who would hold up a breaking news story in order to find out if someone had reported it already is a lunatic.

I'm influenced here by an important precedent that you may or may not be familiar with. I've never mentioned it before, but who's to say whether you read it somewhere else. At any rate, it seems that when Luke wrote his Gospel and turned it in for publication, a discussion ensued. "I like the way you handled the Beatitudes," said one father of the early church, "but I'm not sure we need the line 'as was originally reported by Matthew.'"

"Credit where it's due," said Luke.

"Did you rip him off?" wondered another of the church fathers.

"It's all original reporting," said Luke. "I didn't know Matthew had written a Gospel until I'd finished my own. Even so . . . "

"The Bible's supposed to be divinely inspired," said a third church father. "This line sounds like it was inspired by a trademark lawyer."

"I did get a call from a Frank somebody," Luke allowed. "He sounded plenty mad."

"He'll live," said the first church father, and reached for his blue pencil.

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