How did I do it? It was easy! I guessed! As I admitted at the time, it was simply an effort to win the astonishingly stupid and pointless media game of being incrementally first on a breaking story that is spoon-fed to everyone at the same time. This is one of the sad artifacts of modern journalism, where everything is reported on a 24-hour news cycle, and speed is wildly overvalued. When I was a young newspaper reporter, with once-a-day deadlines, we lived by the byword “Late But Great,” meaning it’s okay to be second on a story so long as you tell it better. Today’s byword seems to be: “Worst But First.”
There are relatively few times when fierce competition makes sense and seconds matter; the most famous of these was in 1963, when Merriman Smith of United Press International destroyed the competition on the biggest story of his life. He was riding in the pool press car behind the presidential limousine in Dallas when shots were fired. Smith was first to grab the lone “radio phone” in the car, and for the next few minutes he clamped onto it like a pit bull on a rump roast, calling in his international scoop, pretending his office couldn’t hear him, repeating himself again and again as the hapless Associated Press man pleaded for the phone, and finally started pummeling Smith with closed fists. Smith eventually surrendered the phone, but apparently not before disabling it: The AP man got a dead line. This act of competitive thuggery earned Merriman Smith a five-minute, international five-bell exclusive, a back full of welts and bruises, and the Pulitzer Prize.
But stories like that are once-in-a-lifetime events. Today, in an era of mostly managed news, the impulse for a five-minute scoop is absurd and wonky and petty. It leads to things such as the glorious moment, preserved forever on YouTube, where Fox’s Shannon Bream, a former Miss Virginia, beautifully coiffed and professionally poised, stands outside the Supreme Court reading from, and interpreting, page one of Chief Justice John Roberts’s health-care decision. As a journalist, I can tell you it is not possible to watch this excruciating performance without a fierce internal monologue:
“He says the individual mandate cannot be sustained under Congress’s power to regulate commerce!”
(Turn the page, Shannon!)
“That means the mandate is gone!”
(Turn. The. %*!&#. Page. Shannon.)
Meanwhile, over on CNN, John King was busy trying to beat the competition, lurching into the Big Picture. No way was he going to let a mere slip of a girl best him. ...
“The justices throwing that out is a direct blow to president of the United States, a direct blow to his Democratic Party, and this is a victory, if you will, for. ...”
Because I want to do my part for American journalism, I hope you all tune in to my Twitter feed at precisely 9:50 p.m. Aug. 5, when I will live tweet, at the moment of the starting gun, the winner and the winning time for the Olympic men’s 100-meter dash. Hey, there’s a chance I’ll be right, but more important, I’ll be first ... by nine whole seconds.