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Minnich: We’ve come so far, too fast?

Walter Cronkite brought the nation the first daily half-hour news broadcast on television in September 1963. We got national and international news in words and pictures on the day of the event, sandwiched between local puppet shows and a 15-minute local TV station’s reading of what could be found in the 9-Star edition of the city papers.

Prior to that, some markets had a short national newscast in the evening, and some had to rely on radio, or yesterday’s city papers arriving at the local cigar and news store on the bus. But at least the news you got was something that had already happened.

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Now, it seems, most of the 24/7 news scramble is about what might have happened, or may happen, and a lot of talk about who said this and who said something else.

I would like to think we’ve come a long way, and in many ways we have. The speed and technology and the fiscal resources dedicated to news gathering, production and reporting is remarkable. But there’s such a thing as too much, too soon.

Too much is any repetition of the same story to the point that the average person looks forward to the ads by car dealers and ambulance-chasing lawyers. Too soon is anything that gets to the public before the facts have been checked.

As an editor in a career that spanned everything from small local weeklies and dailies to major metro papers, with a couple of side-trips into TV land, public relations, technical writing and video production, I had one rule: It’s more important to get the story right than it was to get it first.

I let that rule slip out of my control and break a couple of times and regretted it. Still regret the pain it caused and the loss of credibility we earned for ourselves. Because without credibility, you can’t be an effective news source. Or president, for that matter.

Early in my career I began telling people you can’t believe everything you read in the papers — or see or hear on TV and radio. I would hasten to add that the No. 1 reason for that is that sources will lie to reporters. Can you believe it?

Sources will lie, delay, spin and twist the facts, distract with counter claims, and just plain shut up, although silence seems to be difficult for just about everyone but Robert Mueller. And even he had to speak up when BuzzFeed jumped the gun on a few things the other day.

One of the consequences of being lied to consistently is that some reporters start trying to overachieve. Sometimes they gather enough words to string a story together and justify going with it because they figure it’s close enough to the shenanigans taking place and maybe you can shoot the monkey out of the tree with a little Kentucky windage, or a shotgun blast of information, some of which is true and some of which is just in the vicinity of the target.

Premature reporting is not limited to coverage of politics, of course. I share the ideal of standing up to bullies, particularly male bosses who take advantage of their powers to sexually use women. But I wince at the ease with which we have gone so far as to print names and details about allegations with not so much as an attempt to ascertain the truth of them.

You probably nodded to yourself when you read my line about not believing everything you read. And many who nodded at that might have shrieked with rage when I said something about being too soon to publicly shame alleged sexual predators.

Most of us agree we live in a less civil world. Maybe we could reclaim something worthwhile if we followed that old rule predating the 24/7 cable news scramble: Try to get it first, but first get it right.

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