For obvious reasons, journalism places a premium on speed. When news breaks on Tuesday, reporters spring into action,
intent on getting 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
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 believed 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. My own experience is that insight and good judgment don'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
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 . . . and he doesn't care about his own people."
To some people hearing this, it was plain that Carroll could only have been speaking under duress. "Jill Carroll forced to
make propaganda video as price of freedom," the Monitor headlined its story the next day. Anyone tempted to accuse Carroll
of some other motive, cautioned Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post, "should think about what they would do (after)
three months with machine guns held to their heads."
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
At a popular site on the left, meanwhile, 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 reaction is only going to
grow more intense. Dozens of traditional news outlets, for example, now maintain blogs of their own. But it is an unhealthy
impulse, and commentators in every medium should resist it. First impressions are not the same as thoughtful commentary.
It's nice to be first. It's better to be right.