FOR OBVIOUS REASONS, journalism places a premium on speed. When news breaks on Tuesday, reporters spring into action to get the story into the paper on Wednesday -- and maybe even online or on the air by Tuesday night.
For reasons that are rather less obvious, opinion journalism -- the business not of reporting what happened, but of commenting on it -- also tends to place a premium on speed. When that story breaks on Tuesday, members of the pundits' guild spring into action as well. Editorial writers and columnists tell their readers what the news means. TV talking heads and radio pontificators pass judgment. Internet bloggers -- the commentariat's newest, increasingly influential players -- scramble to weigh in. And the more compelling or startling the news, the more immediate, and often the more adamant, the opinions expressed.
All of this is very democratic and robust; it certainly makes for a noisy and bustling marketplace of ideas. But does it make for a more thoughtful one?
I have always thought that racing to report a story makes a lot more sense than racing to express a point of view about it. No doubt there are some sages who don't need time to reflect -- or to wait for more facts, or to see how a story turns out -- in order to generate some well-chosen words of genuine wisdom and insight. My own experience is that judgment doesn't usually work that way. I find that thought and a bit of distance vastly improve the odds of coming up with something worth saying -- and that rushing to tell the world what to think of the latest headlines makes for shallow, half-baked, or unfair commentary.
Case in point: the release of Jill Carroll.
When the Christian Science Monitor reporter was set free in Baghdad last week, she insisted at first that her captors had not harmed her. "I was treated very well; it's important people know that," she said in an interview conducted by the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni organization into whose hands she was released. "They never threatened me in any way."
On the same day, a videotape made before she was freed was posted on the Internet. In it, Carroll denounced the United States and praised the insurgents as "good people fighting an honorable fight." Asked by the interviewer if she has "a message for Mr. Bush," her answer was one-sided and hostile:
"Yeah, he needs to stop this war. He knows this war is wrong. He knows that it was illegal from the very beginning. He knows that it was built on a mountain of lies."
To some people hearing this, it was plain that Carroll was speaking under duress. "Jill Carroll forced to make propaganda video as price of freedom," the Monitor headlined its story the next day. Anyone imagining that Carroll could have had any other motive, cautioned Ellen Knickmeyer of The
But others, in their haste to express an opinion, pronounced Carroll guilty of collaboration.
"May as well just come right out and say she was a willing participant," one conservative blog announced. Declared another: "She was anti-America when she went over there and I say the kidnapping was a put up deal from the get go." The executive producer of a prominent radio/television talk show described Carroll on the air as "the kind of woman who would wear one of those suicide vests. You know, walk into the -- try and sneak into the Green Zone . . . She's like the Taliban Johnny or something."
At a popular site on the left, there was scorn for the "totally inappropriate" assumptions that Carroll's warm words about her captors could be "motivated by anything other than a desire to tell the truth."
Yet one day later, once she was safely out of Iraq, Carroll issued a statement repudiating the "things that I was forced to say while captive." She bitterly labeled the men who kidnapped her and murdered her translator, Alan Enwiya, as "criminals, at best." What she thought of the opinionated prodigies who couldn't wait to climb on their soapboxes and tell the world what to think about her, Carroll didn't say. Perhaps she was being polite. Perhaps, unlike them, she prefers to think before she vents.
With the swelling influence of the Internet and the blogosphere, the pressure to generate instant commentary is only going to grow more intense. But it is a deeply unhealthy impulse, and commentators -- in every medium -- should resist it. It's nice to be first. It's better to be right.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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