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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: Dangerous media-and-politics trend

Free press in the digital age.

Free press in the digital age. Credit: iStock

When I was little, there were big news stories. There weren't a lot of media outlets to cover them, but it didn't matter much, because everyone was watching and reading the same things. When a story broke, the whole world was on it, or so it seemed, and that largely kept those in charge accountable -- think Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.

We had the big three television networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- plus the New York City dailies, news radio, community papers, and national magazines. That was about it. Channel 11 was for "Superman" and "Batman," and Channel 13 was something you flipped through as quickly as possible as a New York City kid in the mid 1960s. Please don't ask what the channel marked "UHF" was for because I still don't know.

That's pretty much the same world in which I began working in politics and public relations 20 years later. The only big difference then was CNN, which was a news junkie's dream. The Telex, a precursor to the fax machine, was around, but rarely employed. News releases were sent by mail, or hand delivered if it was something urgent. The true revolutionary item was the Post It Note, which you could use to crop photos to pitch along with photo captions to newspapers. Crop, address, stuff, seal, mail, wait. That was the pace of most political news pitches, which, in the world of Twitter, now seems crazy.

When the Internet came, my head exploded. The possibilities were simply too great to grasp. But of one thing I was certain, there would be more accountability in the political world as more and more news outlets appeared.

But a weird thing has happened in the political news industry in the past dozen years. As the number of outlets, and quasi-news outlets, has skyrocketed, and as the pace of news has gone to Mach speed, accountability has diminished. Instead of snooping under every rock, blogs and online newspapers have acquired a pack mentality where they quickly descend on a single news story, like locusts, and then, whether that story is truly stripped of its bark or not, move onto the next one. I do the same with this column; I largely follow the stories of the day because it seems to be what the reading public wants.

People who do crisis public relations have noticed that. We've learned that if you batten down the hatches when the horde arrives, and wait things out long enough, it will move on every time.

I am reminded of that whenever there is a sex scandal in which a politician refuses to call it quits. Twenty years ago -- even 10 -- his public relations person would have pushed him to resign, but today one has a better chance of surviving just about anything in politics if one just waits it out. New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who appeared to be teetering under a cloud of scandal a year ago, is a perfect example of that. He weathered the storm. So did Bill Clinton. The pain is intense, and then you are through it.

This week, it was Mayor Bill de Blasio, who demonstrated this thesis. The mayor didn't do anything scandalous, he simply announced a new contract with the teachers union. But he refused to release some details of the plan. Reporters fired away at him, but he wouldn't give answers. He never could have gotten away with that 20 years ago. New York State recently did the same in announcing a new contract with the Transport Workers Union. It was all broad brush strokes and little detail. This is the new trend in government and politics because one can get away with it.

I'm sure there are good reporters still running down the contract details in these deals which will eventually emerge, but the story already has passed for all intents and purposes. The pack has moved on, and so has the public's attention.

There is so much to cover today, and no time to linger.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.