When Those Pesky Blogs Undermine NPR News

It seems there are no secrets any more... even when you try to keep them.

The Pentagon found that out to its cost over the past weekend when it released its report on the shooting death in Iraq of Nicola Calipari, an Italian intelligence agent.

Calipari died while rescuing an Italian journalist who had been held hostage by Iraqi insurgents. As they drove to safety, the Italians ran into a U.S. Army checkpoint. The Americans opened fire on the car, killing Calipari as he tried to shield the journalist.

'Unredacted'

NPR's Vicky O'Hara reported on a Defense Department document, which exonerated U.S. military personnel. The document was highly edited (or "redacted" in Pentagon parlance), with about 20 percent of the original information removed.

Over the past weekend, NPR placed the document on its Web site.

But some NPR listeners and cyber-savvy bloggers (people who run personal Web sites on the Internet) soon discovered if they downloaded the document from npr.org and translated it into another format, the edited portions could be restored.

The unexpurgated document was then posted on a number of Web sites. It included details of U.S. Army policies and procedures in hostage cases, as well as the names of the military personnel involved in the killing of the Italian agent.

NPR removed the document from its Web site. But the information, available from many media sources, had already been disseminated around the Internet.

Two Issues

First, it is essential to report on government documents. But in this case, publishing the unedited report (albeit unintentionally) could have — and could yet — threaten peoples' lives. There are times when editors have to make a difficult choice between the public's right to know and the risk of endangering lives. But this was not one of those instances. NPR was right to remove the documents from its Web site once it became clear that the full version could be accessed.

Second, the blogosphere has proven once again to be an amoral place with few rules. The consequences for misbehavior are still vague. The possibility of civic responsibility remains remote. It is a place where the philosophy of "who posts first, wins" predominates.

'Abandoning the News'

The increasing sway of such thinking is borne out in a recent Magid survey for the Carnegie Corporation called "Abandoning the News" (See Web Resources, below).

It's a fascinating look at how — and why — Americans' news habits are changing, especially among the Internet-savvy users between 18 and 34.

The survey confirms (again) what many people in the news business suspect: that younger people find the Internet a more useful place, and a more nimble way to get their news, compared to television, radio and (especially) newspapers. At the same time, fewer Americans of all ages, but especially young Americans, feel the need to keep up with the news at all.

Those who rely on the Internet as their primary source of news keeps growing compared to other media sources. This group also considers Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, to be the most trusted television anchor.

At the same time, readership for newspapers and viewers of network television news continue to fall.

Public Radio: An Exception to the Trend?

Public radio — for the moment — seems exempt from that trend. Public radio's listenership continues to rise. But NPR needs to know what it is doing right to attract these new listeners. Is there a downside to this growth?

Complacency is the constant danger that lurks in every newsroom.

The worlds of the MSM ("mainstream media") and the blogosphere are making cautious contact. Slowly, bloggers are finding their way into the MSM. As the Carnegie Report shows, NBC hired bloggers to comment on their election night coverage last year. ABC News and CNN are actively pursuing the blog-prone audience. Even one of NPR's newest programs, Day To Day is collaborating with Slate.com, the online magazine. On NPR, these online journalists contribute their editorial perspectives and edgy insights — with gasps of dismay from some listeners and occasionally from the ombudsman too.

The Blogs Are Winning

The appeal of the blogs? Humor seems to be the biggest attraction. Ironic detachment from the news, an ability to deflate egos and refreshing, undisguised opinion are also valued. All are antithetical to most news organizations.

American newspapers traditionally and scrupulously segregate fact-based reporting from opinion by designating pages for each. Radio and television try to ensure that opinion remains secondary to reporting. Conclusions should be drawn warily. Bloggers tend not to care if they, and their readers conflate opinion and fact. It's part of the appeal of the blogosphere.

As news organizations fight to regain their battered credibility and vanishing audiences, the blogs and the number of people who read them continue to grow. The blogs entertain, they provoke, and they are not constrained by journalistic standards of truth telling.

This is a challenge and a danger for journalism.

Can the MSM adopt any blog values to attract the younger audience? Or should we wait and see? Perhaps these younger people will outgrow these youthful informational indiscretions and come to their senses — and back to media that can serve them best...

I have my doubts...

Ken Rudin Gets Cranky

NPR's political editor Ken Rudin has a column (See "Political Junkie," link below), on the NPR Web site. It is, as he readily admits, a blog, albeit one that is sanctioned and sustained by NPR, just as this column is also a blog.

In his most recent column, Rudin expressed his frustration with the blogosphere's ability to use the Internet to mobilize and to pepper NPR with complaints:

Finally, congratulations to the dozens and dozens of free thinkers who wrote in, often using the exact same language, regarding a piece by NPR's David Welna on the oncoming collision in the Senate over the right of the minority to filibuster judicial nominations. David mentioned that Senate Democrats are calling Republican leader Bill Frist's threat to change the rules and curtail the filibuster the "nuclear option." Some Web logs took NPR to task by saying we were parroting the GOP line by attributing the quote to the Dems, when after all it was Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) who coined the phrase. All David was doing was saying that Democrats were calling it the "nuclear option," which they were. Welna didn't say that the Dems originated the term. He didn't get into its etymology. But suddenly, according to a bunch of blogs, NPR was "bamboozled," joining the vast right-wing conspiracy in attributing the phrase to the Democrats. And that was followed by dozens of e-mails, all from people "outraged" that NPR would stoop to such tactics. The least they could do is change some of the wording and make it look like they actually did some independent thinking before pressing the "send" button.

The ombudsman at The Washington Post, Michael Getler, has made similar complaints about his e-mail being clogged by the blogs.

Have Standards Become Irrelevant?

As the Carnegie Report concludes, we in the MSM may be the King Canutes of latter-day media, hoping that we can order the tide to recede at our command. News organizations may insist on their journalistic prerogatives, update their journalistic ethics guides and hire more ombudsmen, but many bloggers think that's just irrelevant.

And what if they are right?

The blogs showed NPR, when it posted the Defense Department document, that the Web has changed both the rules and the means of disseminating information.

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