William M. Daley is reportedly going to become the next White House chief of staff. I know that because I just read the report in the New York Times, and have seen “BREAKING” announcements from various outlets on Twitter, and have seen numerous reports to that effect for the last few days.
Now some news organization has bragging rights to having reported it first, and we all know, a couple hours in advance, something that President Obama will probably announce later this afternoon—thanks to the numerous reporters thrown at the story by Washington’s major news outlets.
So what? What good did it do us?
A constant refrain these days from journalists criticized for ignoring stories, or undercovering them, or not following up, or not going into great enough depth, is that there are not enough resources and time. I’m sympathetic to that argument because it’s true: staffs have been cut back, journalists are being required to churn out more copy with less support, and there still remain 24 hours in a day. But the argument becomes less sympathetic when you see cases like this—in which major news outlets have devoted valuable man-hours to chasing a story that would quickly be announced anyway, and to getting it half a minute before the other guy.
Don’t get me wrong: the question of who becomes chief of staff is important, as are other major Administration staffing decisions. What policies the Administration pursues, and how the choices reflects those policies, definitely matters. But beating the other guy on this particular appointment does not.
As journalists say, the amount of resources you throw at a particular story is a question of priorities, because those resources are limited. In this case—with a showdown looming over the debt ceiling, with conflicting trillion-dollar claims about health care and jobs, &c.—there are any number of issues that are a better use of time than being first on a scoop that will be irrelevant in a matter of hours, if not minutes.
This is, possibly, one of those baby-and-bathwater problems. That is, the competitive urge to get the news first for the sake of winning may not be helpful—but it may be an inseparable part of a drive that also produces more useful scoops.
Still, it would be great, as news outlets are forced to cut back ever more, for some prominent organizations to publicly and vocally decide that they’re going to let the other guy confirm the news Washington already knows first from now on, and conserve their resources for discoveries that will matter for more than an afternoon. That, at least, would be a really newsworthy development.