266. The Two Reporters

There are two reporters; let’s call them Wilson and Smith. Each is doing a story on a noted public figure, who we’ll call Jameson. Wilson covers Jameson regionally as an extension of his beat, meaning he has a solid rapport with him and talks to him often enough that the two are on a first-name basis.

Smith is a feature reporter, deployed by his national media company to trail Jameson for a week or two and gather enough information for a comprehensive magazine piece.

One afternoon on the job, the two reporters find themselves in a public hallway alone with the Jameson. Each senses the opportunity, but Wilson gets to him first.

In the course of answering Wilson’s questions, Jameson recounts a humorous, telling anecdote about pancakes that is tailor-made for the news. In fact, Wilson is so engrossed in his pancake conversation he doesn’t even notice Smith, who also hears the anecdote while he waits for his chance to ask Jameson his own question.

Wilson wraps up his interview with Jameson and leaves. The next day he files his beat report, using the pancake story extensively and framing Jameson within its fluffy, buttery details. Wilson’s report enjoys a brief turn as the story du jour on Sports Twitter, primarily because of The Pancake Story. The public is fascinated with Jameson, and Wilson’s reporting rides the zeitgeist.

A week later, Smith’s piece hits the web. It’s long, thoroughly researched and delicately written — vintage Smith — and about two thirds of the way down, Smith includes a graf that offhandedly mentions The Pancake Story.

Now, it can be reasonably assumed that Smith never read Wilson’s original piece. Wilson, after all, writes many more pieces for a smaller market of readers. But Wilson reads Smith’s piece — after all, it’s a long, national feature on a topic he himself covers — and when he gets to the bit about the pancakes, however, he becomes furious.

Smith stole my thunder, Wilson thinks. He must have been skulking around during my one-on-one interview with Jameson… Maybe even eavesdropping on the interview! Fueled by a sense of professional justice, Wilson brings the issue forcefully — damningly even, in Wilson’s own eyes — to his followers.

Now out in the ether, Smith strongly and publicly rebukes the accusation. Jameson made those comments in a public hallway, Smith reasons, and what was he supposed to do, put away his notebook? Ask for permission? Plug his ears?

Predictably, no one wins the Twitter spat, but it does have one useful outcome — it informs me of enough details so I can ask you, the reader, this:

Is either reporter in the right?

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