January 2, 2006 Answering Back to the News Media, Using the Internet By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE - NY Times http://tinyurl.com/73o2v
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 word. 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 "Nightline." "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 report." 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 footage. "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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