Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How not to report how not to fly

It was just a short time ago that Chesley B. Sullenberger III became a national hero for landing a full-sized airliner in New York's Hudson River, with no loss of life.

Captain Sully's skills were sorely needed on Saturday when a private plane, with an apparently blind pilot (although also apparently a great guy) at the controls, flew straight into a tourist helicopter over the very same Hudson River, killing everyone on both aircraft and horrifying thousands of witnesses on shore who watched the machines fall from the sky.

But that's not the story here. There's only so much detail to report about this kind of tragedy — two craft, two pilots, many passengers, 100% fatalities — and so reporting, for reporters and their media outlets, isn't quite as important as "scooping" other journalists and getting the details out first... even if they're the same details that other outlets have already gotten out.

When a "scoop" isn't possible unless someone else has scooped first, then welcome to the age of journalistic piracy. In the rush to get stories out, in this story of the tragedy on the Hudson River, journalists have been throwing a long list of previous Code of Conduct items out the window. Verify witness accounts? No time. Check facts? Ditto. Attribute quotes? Only if possible. Credit sources? Um, shhhhhhh.

According to Jerry DeMarco in the New Jersey Crime Examiner (see, we are crediting sources), journalism is now engaged in the equivalent to plagiarism in college English, or bootleg downloading in popular music. The few big outfits that still have money and staff to get stories, get them, and everyone else who's laid off 80% of their work (writing) force just "picks the bones" (DeMarco's words) from the big guys... without credit. Without attribution. Without payment.

Some day, WB will post its full theory of how the entertainment industry is going right back to its lowly roots with traveling minstrels, touring actors, and unpaid town criers. For now, we'll leave you to ponder the ways that it's happening. Let's just say that even Captain Sully won't be able to change this trajectory.

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