BARBED WIRE

The AP Is Breaking More Than News

Geared to the hot news seated at his typewriter right beside an incoming machine, an Associated Press cable editor processes a hot story.
Geared to the hot news seated at his typewriter right beside an incoming machine, an Associated Press cable editor processes a hot story. (AP)

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By Jay Newton-Small
Sunday, October 26, 2008

Any young journalist covering a presidential campaign is likely to have read Timothy Crouse's classic book on the 1972 election, "The Boys on the Bus." In the first chapter, the author describes the pecking order of print journalists. At the top of the food chain are the wire-service reporters, particularly the reporters from the Associated Press, the oldest of news organizations -- those hard-bitten, vigilant correspondents who set the agenda for everybody else.

"Wire stories are usually bland, dry and overly cautious," Crouse wrote. "There is always an inverse proportion between the number of persons a reporter reaches and the amount he can say. The larger the audience the more inoffensive and inconclusive the article must be."

These days, Crouse would be in for a shock. Some of the most eyebrow-raising stories this presidential-election cycle have come from a surprising source: the stodgy old AP. And this new boldness is threatening not only the AP's standing as a neutral arbiter of the news but also challenging its relationship with its owners, thousands of struggling U.S. newspapers that are coming to see the AP as a monster of their own creation: a competitor that could hasten their demise.

A sampling of headlines and leads this year:

"Is Edwards Real or a Phony?"

"Mitt Romney's victory in Michigan was a defeat for authenticity in politics."

"John McCain calls himself an underdog. That may be an understatement."

"Obama Walks Arrogance Line"

"Slick Hillary?"

"I miss Hillary."

"Biden pick shows lack of confidence."

Just as the Internet is changing newspapers, so it is also changing the AP. In its efforts to survive the tectonic shifts destabilizing most daily newspapers and to brand itself online -- many of the above articles ran only on the Web as part of the new, edgier AP -- the wire service is evolving into the world's largest virtual newspaper and a direct competitor to the papers that own it. When the news organization entrusted with calling elections sets off down the slippery slope of news analysis, it's hard not to wonder: Is the journalism world losing its North Star, the one source that could be relied upon to provide "Just the facts, ma'am"?


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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