We see it in breaking news coverage (for example, the ABC News Aurora mistake) as well as in technology news (there was an apparently completely fabricated rumor that Apple was investing in Twitter on Friday) all the time, but I thought it might be good to remember that the fever for scoops, small and large, didn’t start with Twitter or cable TV news. From The Boys on the Bus, here’s an account of the doings of UPI White House correspondent Merriman Smith:
His sprints to the phone booth were legendary. He trampled anyone and anything in his way; he once slipped and dislocated his shoulder on the way to the phone but dictated for an hour before passing out from the pain.
He went to incredible lengths to score small scoops. It was rumored for instance that that he always was the first reporter to know that Nixon was going to go to the Western White House because he had cultivated a clerk at a San Clemente motel who called him whenever the whores came up from Vegas in anticipation of the arrival of the Secret Service.
For years, he doggedly hung on to his seniority privilege of sitting in the middle of the front seat of the pool car on on Presidential trips. He was in this cherished spot on November 22, 1963, in the Dallas motorcade. When he heard the sound of gunfire, he grabbed the radiophone (which was on the transmission hump, directly in front of him) and started to dictate. Jack Bell, Smith’s rival from the AP, was in the back seat. After Smith had dictated four pages of copy, Bell demanded the phone. Smith stalled, saying that he wanted the Dallas operator to read back the copy–the overhead wires might have interfered with transmission. Everyone in the car knew that Smith had a perfect connection–they could hear the operator’s voice coming over the phone. Bell started screaming and trying to wrestle with Smith for the receiver. Smith stuck it between his knees and hunched up into a ball, with Bell beating him wildly about the head and shoulders. UPI beat the AP by several crucial minutes on the story, and Smith won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination.
Merriman was on the job from 1941 to 1970. He was an alcoholic, divorced, lost a boy in Vietnam, and shot himself after he learned he had incurable cancer.
Over forty years after Merriman’s exit from this vale of tears, newspapers still hunger after scoops, reporters dutifully report obvious bullshit just to insure that they aren’t scooped (whatever happened to Romney’s “Saturday surprise”?), reporters are often strange and damaged people often motivated by triviality, and everyone wants a Pulitzer Prize no matter how they get it.