Saturday, December 5th, 1998
So, just what is a scoop? Whats an exclusive? What does it mean to score a beat on your fellow reporters?
As with so many things, the answer is a lot more ambiguous these days. When the news broke that Tom Hanks that he might be reconsidering his stalwart support of President Clinton, we found out first not by reading the New Yorker one-on-one with Hanks, but by hearing broadcast reports saying "In an upcoming New Yorker interview, Tom Hanks says "
The New Yorker had the story "first," but we heard about it first on television because, like many other weeklies, the magazine lets TV, radio, and daily print reporters get an early look at their editionsometimes several days before it hits newsstands.
Why? Because the print publication hopes that getting word out fast builds good word of mouth. And when the magazine (as most do) has a circulation far below the level of national broadcast audiences, they reach significantly beyond their actual readership by letting the more immediate media report on their "scoop."
For me, reporting on reporting is only barely a step above regurgitating a press release from any company. Its not investigating. Its not gathering (heck, the information is often force-fed to you). Theres no attempt at context. Its promoing.
And it gets particularly bizarre when the report on the report becomes uh, the report.
In the Hanks case, the affable actor was able to get a denial outclaiming that the New Yorker piece distorted what he was sayingbefore subscribers plucked their copies of the magazine from mailboxes to read the interview in question. His statement came in response to the report on the report. In a certain sense, the hoorah was over before it began.
This kind of reporting-on-reporting-as-promotion has become a refined art, especially in the practiced hands of someone like Barbara Walters. Whenever she scores a big "get"like the recent exclusive (ooh!) interview with Ken Starr, you can count on seeing her a day or two before on Entertainment Tonight offering juicy tidbits from her ABC exclusivewhich, I guess, is then just a bit less exclusive.
ET has always done a big business in all manner of pseudo-exclusives, hustling 10 second clips of movies, music videos, even hairstyle changes up before our eyes. Ooh, its a hair flip youll see first and exclusively on ET!
Of course, any "exclusive" on Entertainment Tonight doesnt seem quite as dramatic after ET runs the video five or six times promoting the story before they get to telling the story.
And when television isnt immediate enough, theres now of course the even more instant (and transitory) medium of the Internet. Print reporters, especially those at dailies, regard this as something of a great equalizer, because they can file half-sourced, incompletely-researched stories as or more quickly than their broadcast counterparts. Its part of that acceleration syndrome I keep whining about, where the only thing that gets sacrificed in the whirl of information and the dizzying spin of the news cycles is thoughtfulness, carefulness, and perspective.
And who has time for those qualities these days, anyway?