When there is no news, send rumors
People today forget that 1860s journalism operated during a time of significant technological change. The telegraph made it possible to obtain information in a few hours that had previously taken a week or more to reach the paper. Although the Atlantic cable laid in 1858 had failed, and would not be restored until war's end, telegraphic connections to easternmost Canada, coupled with steamships, meant that news could come and go from Europe in seven to ten days, instead of three to six weeks. At the same time, the invention of wood pulp paper and machinery to produce it meant that American newspapers could readily cater to a large and increasingly literate audience. Circulation was primary; facts became incidental.
We are now living through a period of similar change, in which the speed and cost advantages are even greater. Being first is again vastly more important than being accurate. Out of many candidates for our attention this week, the leader must be initial coverage of the late violence in Norway. Even before this episode had attracted the inevitable claims of credits, Western media speculated that these must be Islamist terror attacks and presented their speculations as fact. All the while that we were being treated to these rumours, the confessed perp was in custody. Islamist? Home-grown terrorist? Not exactly. Breivik was a person of, shall we say, extreme right-wing views, conflating liberalism and Islamism and seeing mortal threats in both.
Sound familiar? Uh-huh. Those whose attention span is longer than a couple of news cycles may recall the anti-Muslim rants that followed the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, the embarrassed silence that followed the arrest of Timothy McVeigh, and the obstinate refusal of some talk radio hosts to acknowledge their own complicity in the disaster. As long as noise substitutes for discussion, and as long as the beat beats acuurate information, we'll have more of this, because some people will think the noise is information, not entertainment.