January 2, 2006
Answering Back to the News Media, Using the Internet

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, or so goes the
old saw. For decades, the famous and the infamous alike largely followed
this advice. Even when subjects of news stories felt they had been
misunderstood or badly treated, they were unlikely to take on reporters or
publishers, believing that the power of the press gave the press the final

The Internet, and especially the amplifying power of blogs, is changing
that. Unhappy subjects discovered a decade ago that they could use their Web
sites to correct the record or deconstruct articles to expose what they
perceived as a journalist's bias or wrongheaded narration.

But now they are going a step further. Subjects of newspaper articles and
news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to
generate articles and broadcasts - taping interviews, gathering e-mail
exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations - and publish them on their
own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of
gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented, and it carries
implications for the future of journalism.

Just ask "Nightline," the ABC News program, which broadcast a segment in
August about intelligent design that the Discovery Institute, a conservative
clearinghouse for proponents of intelligent design, did not like very much.
The next day, the institute published on its Web site the entire transcript
of the nearly hourlong interview that "Nightline" had conducted a few days
earlier with one of the institute's leaders, not just the brief quotes that
had appeared on television.

The institute did not accuse "Nightline" of any errors. Rather, it urged
readers to examine the unedited interview because, it said, the transcript
would reveal "the predictable tone of some of the questions" by the staff of

"Here's your chance to go behind the scenes with the gatekeepers of the
national media to see how they screen out viewpoints and information that
don't fit their stereotypes," Rob Crowther, the institute's spokesman, wrote
on the Web site.

The printing of transcripts, e-mail messages and conversations, and the
ability to pull up information from search engines like Google, have
empowered those whom Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New
York University, calls "the people formerly known as the audience."

"In this new world, the audience and sources are publishers," Mr. Rosen
said. "They are now saying to journalists, 'We are producers, too. So the
interview lies midpoint between us. You produce things from it, and we do,
too.' From now on, in a potentially hostile interview situation, this will
be the norm."

All these developments have forced journalists to respond in a variety of
ways, including becoming more open about their methods and techniques and
perhaps more conscious of how they filter information.

"To the extent that you know there's someone monitoring every word, it
probably compels you to be even more careful, which is a good thing," said
Chris Bury, the "Nightline" correspondent whose interview was published by
the Discovery Institute. "But readers and viewers need to realize that one
interview is only one part of the story, that there are other interviews and
other research and that this is just a sliver of what goes into a complete

Posting primary source material is becoming part of public relations
strategies for interest groups, businesses and government. The Pentagon and
State Department now post transcripts of interviews with top officials on
their Web sites or they e-mail them to reporters, as does Vice President
Dick Cheney's office.

An early example of turning the tables occurred in 2001, when David D.
Kirkpatrick, who then covered the publishing industry for The New York
Times, wrote an article about Dave Eggers, author of "A Heartbreaking Work
of Staggering Genius." Mr. Eggers posted a 10,000-word response on his Web
site complaining about the tone of the piece, and included their e-mail
exchanges, which Mr. Kirkpatrick had asked be kept private.

Individual newspapers and television stations generally reach a wider
audience than individual blogs, and Mr. Eggers touched on this lopsidedness
when he explained on his Web site why he was reprinting Mr. Kirkpatrick's
e-mail messages: "It's the only remedy commensurate with the impact you
enjoyed with your original piece."

But the power of blogs is exponential; blog posts can be linked and
replicated instantly across the Web, creating a snowball effect that often
breaks through to the mainstream media. Moreover, blogs have a longer shelf
life than most traditional news media articles. A newspaper reporter's
original article is likely to disappear from the free Web site after a few
days and become inaccessible unless purchased from the newspaper's archives,
while the blogger's version of events remains available forever.

In another case involving The Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin, a business
reporter, interviewed Mark Cuban, the technology billionaire, via e-mail
last summer for a column about Mr. Cuban's investment in an Internet
company. Mr. Cuban was unhappy with the column and posted their e-mail
exchanges, touching off an extensive discussion on the Internet about, among
other things, the value of seeing a reporter's raw material.

Many bloggers said reporters should publish such material as a matter of
course; others questioned the need to be inundated with every scrap of
unorganized, unedited information and wondered where it would stop. (Just
two weeks ago, Mr. Cuban posted another e-mail exchange with Randall Stross,
another writer for The Times.)

While the publication of raw material is often aimed at putting the
journalist in a bad light, it can sometimes boomerang on the source. The
Pentagon got into a dispute with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post in 2004
over quotations in his book "Plan of Attack" that were attributed to
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld about the invasion of Iraq. The
quotations had not appeared in the Pentagon's official transcript of Mr.
Woodward's interview with Mr. Rumsfeld. But they appeared in full in Mr.
Woodward's transcript, and the Pentagon had to admit that it had deleted
those portions from its transcript.

Sometimes the subjects of news articles even post such material on the Web
in advance of an article or broadcast, scooping the reporter and getting
their version out first. Earlier this year, Edward Nawotka, a book critic
based in Austin, Tex., described in The Texas Observer an interview he had
conducted via e-mail with Ann Coulter, the conservative writer, a couple of
years ago. She sent him a 2,000-word response by e-mail, which he then asked
her to trim so he could include it in a daily e-mail newsletter - only to
discover that she had already posted her entire response on her Web site.

Another example occurred in 1999, when "20/20," the ABC News program,
interviewed officials from a company called Metabolife International. The
company acquired footage of the interview and posted it on its Web site
before the program was shown. This was so unusual at the time that the
company bought advertisements in newspapers urging readers to watch the

"People do it all the time," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN
correspondent who is now a research fellow at the Berkman Center for
Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, where she studies the effect of
blogging on journalism.

Interview subjects are "annoyed that they're quoted out of context, or they
did a half-hour interview and only one sentence got used. Or sometimes
they're just flattered that a reporter called them," she said. "If you're
one of a growing number of people with a blog, you now have a place where
you can set the record straight."

Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org and a former producer
at ABC News and CNN, said that while the active participation by so many
readers was healthy for democracy and journalism, it had allowed
partisanship to mask itself as media criticism and had given rise to a new
level of vitriol.

"It's now O.K. to demonize the messenger," he said. "This has led to a very
uncivil discourse in which it seems to be O.K. to shout down, discredit,
delegitimize and denigrate the people who are reporting stories and to pick
at their methodology and ascribe motives to them that are often unfair."

Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the
University of Maryland, said reporting on reporters had created a kind of
"Wild West atmosphere" in cyberspace.

With reporters conducting interviews more frequently by e-mail, he said,
"You have to start thinking a couple of moves ahead because you're leaving a
paper trail. And the truth squad mentality of some bloggers means you are
apt to have your own questions thrown back at you."

Posting of original material may be somewhat less common in the corporate
world than among individuals representing themselves. Steven Rubenstein,
president of Rubenstein Communications, the New York public relations firm,
said that posting raw material was "another tool in the tool chest" and that
if a corporate client had been damaged, "you'll certainly want to get
something out that's Google-able."

But, he said, a corporation must also consider whether publishing such
material would alienate an influential beat reporter as well as an entire
news outlet and possibly reporters for other outlets. "You have to balance
the incident over the long-term relationship," he said. "But you can get
your side out in a benign way. It doesn't have to be antagonistic."

Reporters say that these developments are forcing them to change how they do
their jobs; some are asking themselves if they can justify how they are
filtering information. "We've got to be more transparent about the
news-gathering process," said Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional
Quarterly and author of "Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You
Against the Media." "We've pretended to be like priests turning water to
wine, like it's a secret process. Those days are gone."

Some news outlets are posting transcripts of their interviews with
newsmakers, and some reporters are posting their own material. Stephen
Baker, a senior writer at BusinessWeek, has posted not only transcripts from
his interviews but also his own notes on his Web site, saying he likes to
involve his readers in the journalistic process.

"Sometimes I say to my readers, Here's my interview. What story would you
have written?" said Mr. Baker, who writes about technology. Journalism, he
added, used to be a clear-cut "before and after process," much like making a
meal; the cooking was done privately in the kitchen and then the meal was
served. Now, he said, "every aspect of it is scrutinized."

And many journalists say they now expect that whatever they say or write to
a source, even trivial chit-chat, will be made public.

"I don't carry an expectation of privacy anymore," said Bill Toland, a
reporter for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who said his e-mail messages had
cropped up on various Web sites. "I think it's fair game, as long as you're
fair with the people you're dealing with."

While some say they are learning to accept the new interactivity, they also
worry that the view of many bloggers - that reporters should post their raw
material because they are filtering it through their own biases - ignores
the value of traditional journalistic functions, like casting a wide net for
information, coaxing it out of reluctant sources, condensing it and
presenting it in an orderly way.

Jamie McIntyre, CNN's senior correspondent at the Pentagon, said the
traditional skills of sifting through information and presenting it in
context were especially vital now because there were so many other sources
of information.

"With the Internet, with blogs, with text messages, with soldiers writing
their own accounts from the front lines, so many people are trying to shape
things into their own reality," he said. "I don't worry so much anymore
about finding out every little detail five minutes before someone else. It's
more important that we take that information and tell you what it means."

Ms. MacKinnon predicted that traditional journalism and the art of
distilling information would not vanish. "Most people don't have hours and
hours every day to read the Web, and they want someone who can quickly and
succinctly tell you what you need to know," she said. "But it's great the
raw materials can be made available to those who have the time."

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