Not right, but first

In an era of 24-hour news networks and websites, the competition to be first with a story is overwhelming.

A couple of years ago, that competition almost pulled some brand-name news organizations into an enormous blunder that would have further eroded the public’s trust in the media.

As NBC’s Brian Williams told the Los Angeles Times, he was on a train pulling into Washington’s Union Station when a bulletin came across his BlackBerry: RadarOnline was reporting that U. S. Chief Justice John Roberts was contemplating stepping down.

Williams told the paper he thought it was odd that an entertainment site like Radar had the scoop, but he remembered that the National Enquirer broke the John Edwards scandal. He ran through the station and headed toward NBC’s Washington bureau, believing he would have to go on camera soon with the breaking news.

Luckily, within a minute, the network’s legal correspondent Pete Williams emailed the anchor that the court was denying the story “in the most vehemently conceivable way.”

What could have been an embarrassing farce turned out to be an exercise by a Georgetown University law professor to teach his students to carefully check the credibility of their legal informants. Professor Peter Tague had opened a morning criminal justice class by announcing that Roberts was stepping down.

The professor had done this in the past to teach his students to question any source – even him. This time, though, the Internet age caught up with the story as his students rapidly spread it through instant messaging and social media. Midway through the class, Tague told his students he had made up the story. But it was too late.

Radar apparently bought it hook, line and sinker. Mainstream media like NBC and legal press Above The Law likely would have run with it – citing Radar – if the court hadn’t so forcefully and quickly knocked the story down.

Scoops are nice, but true journalists should know that James Thurber was kidding when he said, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”

Fast is great, accurate is better.

(Note: A version of this editorial has appeared previously in The Maui News).

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.