Media Play Catch-Up To Lightning Pace Of News

In normal times, you'd see front-page headlines on the appointment of a special prosecutor to consider charges against former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

In normal times, you'd see unrelenting media scrutiny of John McCain campaign manager Rick Davis' work for mortgage companies caught up in the market meltdown. And there would be even more ferocious attention paid to each new gaffe served up by both major parties' vice presidential candidates.

But these are not normal times. A careening presidential race has collided with an accelerating financial collapse.

"I don't think anyone — including the people in charge — can make sense of what's happening in the country right now," says new-media guru Jeff Jarvis. He's a consultant for several media companies, including The Washington Post, and a columnist for The Guardian. Jarvis says the media are simply overwhelmed by the news.

"It's just too big and too complicated, and it requires both too much background and fundamental understanding about economics," Jarvis says. "Also, we're not sure whether we're being told the whole story still, so we need people to look into things the way journalists do."

The headlines and the top network news stories are grim, with words like "nightmare," "crisis," "bankrupt" and "peril."

ABC News' Jake Tapper told viewers the failure of House leaders to pass a bill to ease the credit crunch in the financial markets reminded him of Humpty Dumpty: "All the king's horses and all the king's men are trying desperately to figure out just how to put this $700 billion bailout package back together again."

On the Fox News Channel, business anchor Neal Cavuto tried to strike a soothing tone after Monday's record point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average.

"People will say 'Oh, my God, it's the end of the world,' " Cavuto said. "But in percentage terms, it's just kind of like close to the end of the world."

That's kind of reassuring. All of the chaos comes amid a presidential race that seems to overshadow everything. On the night of the bailout meltdown, journalists and political pros were talking about the joint interview of Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin by Katie Couric for CBS Evening News.

The breakneck pace of developments means a lot of news worth knowing receives the briefest burst of attention before being dropped for something hotter.

Think about it, says Alexis Glick, the vice president for business news at the new Fox Business Network and one of the anchors for its show, Opening Bell: The nation's largest insurer is bailed out by the government; the largest savings and loan fails; the nation's fourth-largest bank is sold for a dollar a share in a deal brokered by federal officials.

"If you talked about one of those things occurring in a year, that would be shocking," Glick tells NPR. "Those things occurred in a two-week period. [That's] completely unprecedented."

Glick says she feels compelled to read 200 pages of research each day when she arrives at work at 4:30 a.m. — and then has to keep track throughout the day.

"Personally, for me, I'm glued to the tube. I'm glued to the Internet," she says.

The quick-twitch story cycle reached warp speed last week with McCain's dramatic announcement that he would suspend his campaign to travel to Washington to push for a bailout deal.

"It's time for both parties to come together to solve this problem," McCain told reporters.

Instead, things fell apart. And the melodrama of the campaign became part of the financial crisis. Would the plan fly or fail? Would the first debate be held or not?

"You know, there are even questions about how fully the campaign was suspended," says Martin Baron, editor-in-chief of The Boston Globe. "And there is the question of how involved he was in helping to shape a rescue plan or bailout plan. ... Our capacity to fully explore every single one of those issues is limited, for sure."

Baron says the Globe uses its Web site to relay quick news developments — and readers can turn to the paper's print edition for context.

But media guru Jarvis argues that even that model is not sufficient. He says newspapers and other major news outlets often archive coverage for defined topics on a specific page but rarely curate that page, providing added analysis, links and commentary from informed readers to amplify the stories that appeared in print or on the air.

"What I need is someone to sit down and explain it to me," Jarvis says. "Maybe you come to it the first day, maybe you come to it on the 10th day, but I need someone to say, 'Here are the basics of this story. Click on this link, and I'll take you and I'll explain it to you.' "

Many journalists say they are scrambling just to keep the headlines coming — and are chasing after the explanations, too. For now, the news appears to be outracing both.

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