Noam Cohen, of the New York Times online, ponders the possibility of delaying news in the age of 24/7 twitterers and bloggers and instant access.
WHEN the NBC News host Tim Russert died on June 13, NBC tried to hold back the news from going public for more than an hour to notify his family vacationing in Italy and presumably to prepare for what became six hours of coverage on its cable news outlet, MSNBC.
And King Canute, ancient legend has it, tried to hold back the tide.
Mr. Russert collapsed from a heart attack in NBC’s Washington newsroom around 1:40 p.m.; he was treated there and then taken to a hospital, arriving at 2:23 and being pronounced dead shortly thereafter, according to press accounts. The network, in the voice of its respected former anchor, Tom Brokaw, announced the news at 3:39.
Long before Mr. Russert’s death was reported on air, however, it was flashing across the Internet via the text-messaging service Twitter and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Television networks have a tradition of allowing a network suffering a death to make the announcement first. Other news outlets, including The New York Times and The New York Post, were about five minutes earlier in reporting Mr. Russert’s death for their Web sites.
On Wikipedia, Mr. Russert’s page was updated at 3:01 p.m. — adding the date of death and turning present-tense verbs into the past tense almost 40 minutes before the NBC announcement. The entry was particularly influential since many journalists had heard of Mr. Russert’s becoming stricken, but did not know the outcome. If some turned to Wikipedia to refresh themselves about Mr. Russert, they found an article that seemed to confirm what many had been hearing.
“We were not prepared to say anything until all the family had heard,” said Allison Gollust, an NBC News spokeswoman. “The last thing we wanted to do was to have the family discover this on the air.” She said NBC had asked the other networks to hold back and they readily agreed.
“Before we reported it, I remember someone saying it’s on Wikipedia,” she said, which had them “flabbergasted.”
Holding back the news certainly isn’t the norm for journalists. Keith Olbermann, the MSNBC host, said on his prime-time show “Countdown” that Friday: “We wanted to be sure, absolutely certain, that every member of Tim’s family who needed to be told in person in private had that opportunity, was given that small piece of grace today. Other organizations did not do that.”
For better or worse, it seems that even NBC News cannot protect the family of one of its own in that way.
Looking at the detailed records of editing changes recorded by Wikipedia, it quickly emerged that the changes came from Internet Broadcasting Services, a company in St. Paul, Minn., that provides Web services to a variety of companies, including local NBC TV stations.
An I.B.S. spokeswoman said on Friday that “a junior-level employee made updates to the Wikipedia page upon learning of Mr. Russert’s passing, thinking it was public record.” She added that the company had “taken the necessary measures with the employee and apologized to NBC.” NBC News said it was told the employee was fired.
The instinct of the junior-level employee, presumably, was to correct the record on Wikipedia and share knowledge with the wider world. That flash of idealism was very brief; 11 minutes later, according to Wikipedia records, someone at another Internet Broadcasting computer deleted the date of death and turned all the past tenses back to present tenses. Only minutes later, of course, none of this would matter.
With the spread of online outlets like blogs and MySpace pages and citizen journalists, it can be easily forgotten that the only thing that the Internet cannot guarantee you is an interested audience.
Online journalists like Matt Drudge and Perez Hilton rely on the fact that their scoops will be read by influential members of the news media. But for the other self-made reporters out there, collective enterprises like Wikipedia, which allows anyone to make an edit, or the liberal blog DailyKos, which allows any registered user to post a diary, offer a rare chance to speak to a large audience.
In the case of Wikipedia, this is emphatically not what the site was meant to do. One of the principles of the site is No Original Research — every fact must have appeared somewhere reputable before it can be repeated. (This cause can seem an obsession as stickler editors patrol the site flagging unattributed facts with the label “citation needed.”)
Yet, time and again Wikipedia has been the place where news has broken, usually from anonymous writers who report a death on a person’s article page, like that of the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin in 2005, or, a year later, the killing of the film director and actress Adrienne Shelley in Greenwich Village.
The lesson seems to be this: as long as there is news, people will try to share it. And new technology promises to turn the process into a tide that can swallow us up, good intentions and all.