Twitter Ruined Breaking News, Probably Forever

Way back in April, when Barack Obama was leading Mitt Romney narrowly in polls, and the House Republicans wanted to repeal Obamacare, I published a screed about the meaninglessness of “BREAKING” news in the cable/Twitter age. So I didn’t want to be the umpteenth onanistic reporter chiming in on Amy Sullivan’s nice rant about the same topic.

But there’s always an umpteenth time for something.

Here’s where I disagree with Sullivan – she can’t pick a target. In her two items about the “BREAKING” downgrade, she criticizes 1) Andrea Mitchell’s pride in reporting veep choices, 2) “the folks at CNN,” 3) “this crazy 24-7 Politico world,” and 4) “the Diane Rehm show,” which bumbled into re-reporting the false health care news.

We need fewer targets! The SCOTUSblog post that kicked this off pointed us to the right ones – cable competition and social media. Remember, CNN almost corrected its mistake after only a minute, because its Supreme Court producer figured it out. But what happened?

He immediately recognizes that the Court has turned to an alternative defense of the government, and says into both phones, “Wait, wait.”

But it is already too late. CNN has been carefully orchestrating its transformation into a shockingly efficient news distribution company. They have been planning to saturate every screen in reach with this story as fast as possible, and the producer’s initial go-ahead pulled the trigger.. the network’s web and social media teams are plugged directly into the call through CNN central. They immediately publish unequivocal tweets and a breaking news email saying that the mandate had been invalidated.

It reminds me of the compelling bumper sticker debate over whether guns kill people or people kill people. Yes, people kill people. But it’s easier to shoot a man in Reno and watch him die than it is to hit a man in Reno with a cricket bat, and watch him die. The current news-breaking tool, Twitter, heightens competition by letting “everyone” learn news the second after it’s sent. Twitter makes it feel like you’ve been hopelessly beat to a story if you publish it two minutes later. It also, importantly, muddies up credit for scoops. Several times, I’ve noticed something by a reporter I trust, retweeted it, and then winced when someone gave me credit for “reporting” it. No! I noticed it.

There are several kinds of scoops. Some things you learn from dedicated digging, research and sourcing. Some micro-stories come up – uniquely, to you – because you work a beat. But most news that gets called “breaking” is information that was about to be made public to the entire universe. And Twitter, with its trust-flattening effects, has really ruined that kind of “scoop.” Like Sullivan, I think we can just embrace that.