In his latest column for The Times of London, Matthew Parris tries to pick a rock out of his shoe. He chastises his fellow journalists for reporting stories based on the limited facts available and then dropping those stories when they don’t pan out:
The habit is more disliked by listeners and readers than I think editors appreciate. Perhaps the first item on each day’s news agenda should be “matters arising from yesterday’s news.” News editors would then do us the courtesy of explaining where some of those stories went.
In particular, he zeroes in on reports arising from the London bombings and calls into question the thesis that the original effort benefited greatly from foreign influence. But then he turns around and admits,
Some of the scares that grip our headlines and imaginations do later turn out to have been every bit the threat we thought they were. I have not the least idea what may be the size, shape and competence of al-Qaeda and would not dream of suggesting (and do not believe) that they are uninvolved.
Nevertheless, he believes that “When all the pressures are to talk up a lethal characterization of the forces at work, we need to be supercool in the way we look at these reports.” Parris fingers four interested parties in talking up the “foreign links” aspect of the story: the press (easier story); the government (easier target); the intelligence services (mostly vanity and ass-covering); and al Qaeda (duh). He concludes:
From a certain point of view, the journalist, the politician, the police chief and the terrorist can be seen as locked in a macabre waltz of the mind, no less distorting for being unconscious. We should not to join that dance.
Oh, but let’s. The facts on the ground are still being sorted out, and British police are in hot pursuit of those responsible for the second, failed bombings. And now, terrorists in Egypt have decided to jump in with both feet.
Journalists are trying to move as fast as the story and I think most readers and viewers understand that a) some of the leads won’t pan out and b) untangling all of this on the fly would be tedious. Journalism is only the first draft of history, subject to massive revision.