My former boss Josh Benton gave a talk in 2008 that argued for the narrative power of real-time reporting. Late in the 50-minute presentation, he turned to a UPI teletype printout from John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the raw, arresting copy that was transmitted soon after the chaos began in the Grassy Knoll.
I thought of those bulletins as I followed Twitter for accounts of the attack on Rep. Gabby Giffords. Uncertainty governed the dramatic tweets, which said the congresswoman had died before she emerged alive. The UPI wire in 1963 initially reported that John Connally had been slain along with Kennedy, when the Texas governor actually survived.
The Gifford tweets rendered the unfolding scene like another of Josh’s examples: the MetaFilter thread on 9/11. “This string of comments,” Josh says, “completely evokes that moment in a way that many book-length treatments would not.” And this, even though most contributors this weekend and on 9/11 were just watching on television.
Real-time narrative journalism is sloppy and uncertain, which is to say, realistic, and that roughness is what’s compelling. It gets you on a perfectly genuine level because the narrative is genuinely unresolved; all possibilities exist. The notion of a wire endures beyond the telegraph because it still captures the kinetic energy of a breaking-news story.
Below is the five-minute slice of Josh’s talk that deals with the UPI wire copy and MetaFilter thread. The whole thing is worth watching.