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For Every Story, An Online Epilogue

Via E-Mail and Blog, Anyone's a Critic

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page C01

The growing tide of personal attacks by bloggers and e-mailers "can make you really paranoid," says New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney.

ABC's Linda Douglass says she has "learned that I have not just critics but people who seem to hate me that I don't even know about."


CNN's Jeff Greenfield takes a more favorable view of bloggers than some of his colleagues do. (AP)

"It's very nasty and personal and scatological," says Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank.

The rise of the blogosphere remains one of the most exciting communications developments in decades, giving ordinary folks the chance to bite back at a media establishment widely viewed as arrogant. It's little surprise that mainstream media types don't like being questioned, challenged and chided by critics typing from their basements and bedrooms.

But the increasingly caustic nature of some online criticism is prompting many journalists to complain that their honesty and motivation are being trashed along with their work.

"You want to pay attention to what legitimate critics are saying out there," Nagourney says. "In journalism, you screw up from time to time. But it's become so toxic -- attacks for the sake of attacks."

During last year's presidential campaign, Nagourney says, he heard: " 'This guy is corrupt.' 'He's in Bush's pocket.' 'He's Jeb Bush's lapdog.' When you read that stuff, it's like, why should I take it seriously? If you pay too much attention to it, it can begin flipping you out a bit. There's a whole group of them who think the way to get attention is to attack people who work for the big papers."

Bloggers have scored three major media knockouts since last fall. They were the first to blow the whistle on the suspect National Guard documents used by CBS's Dan Rather in a report on President Bush. They helped force the resignation of CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan over off-the-record remarks about the U.S. military. And they prompted the resignation of online conservative reporter Jeff Gannon by exposing his real name and X-rated past.

Douglass praises some bloggers for "looking at issues and news coverage in a fresh way." But she says others are "driven by anger" and trying "to snuff out the opinions offered by the other side," undermining journalists who "are trying to provide a more balanced view."

"No one likes to have their integrity attacked or their motives or honesty questioned," Douglass says. "If you're a high-profile reporter, there is somebody out there writing some rage-filled tirade about your reporting. . . . Will they intimidate us? Will they make us back off? Probably not."

Some journalists are unperturbed. CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield likes many blogs and doesn't much worry about "the baked-potato brains who say you're a media whore. . . . On the whole, I'm real happy to know there are a lot of people watching with the capacity to check me. I don't think that's chilling. It's just another incentive to get your facts right."

As for "smear artists" on the Internet, Greenfield says, "The freedom that it gives anonymous twerps to spew out invective -- that they don't like the way you look or think you're an idiot or a child abuser -- that's just part of the process."

When controversy erupted last month over what ABC's Douglass and The Post's Mike Allen described as a strategy memo given to Republican senators in the Terri Schiavo case, some conservative bloggers denounced the document as questionable, even fake. Not all backed off after GOP Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida admitted an aide had written the talking points.

"Did some people go too far? Yes, they did," says veteran magazine journalist Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at BuzzMachine.com. "Did some people have to say they were wrong? Yes, they did. And if they didn't, they'll have credibility problems the next time they go berserk on something. I do believe it's self-correcting."

John Hinderaker, the conservative Powerline blogger who hammered away at the reporting on the memo, said it was clear "that we were guessing or drawing an inference or expressing an opinion. I questioned whether there was a single Republican staffer dumb enough to have written that memo. Turns out there was. So I was wrong."

He says the mainstream media have a "liberal tilt" and that "when I criticize a news story or a particular journalist . . . I don't think I tend to personalize it." In fact, says Hinderaker, "you talk about shrill -- you should see what they say about us," including "obscene phone calls."

Despite the long-standing conservative criticism of the media as too liberal, journalists say they have drawn as much or more invective from the left during Bush's presidency. And blog assaults can trigger waves of searing e-mail, such as one sent to Nagourney: "I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war."

Milbank says there are "nasties" on the left and right and during the campaign "both decided I was full of it and hopelessly biased. There's so much noise that you have to tune it out. It's very rare I'll write any story that doesn't get criticized by someone. . . . Complete strangers make assumptions that they know your innermost thoughts."

Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman says he has "been called everything under the sun" and had to set up a separate e-mail account after being deluged with "mass-generated" attacks. "It hasn't quite gotten to the level of spam, but it's approaching that," he says, adding: "We are public figures, whether we like it or not."

Oily Punditry?

ExxonMobil has funneled money to 40 organizations that have either challenged scientific evidence on global warming or are linked to skeptical scientists who do so, says the forthcoming issue of Mother Jones.

Take Steven Milloy, who writes columns for FoxNews.com, the Washington Times and the New York Sun. ExxonMobil has given $40,000 to the Advancement of Sound Science Center and $50,000 to the Free Enterprise Action Institute, two groups where he is a director and which are registered to his home address in Potomac.

Milloy, who runs the Web site JunkScience.com and is a Cato Institute scholar, wrote one column for Fox headlined "Polar Bear Scare on Thin Ice." A 2001 column for USA Today was titled "Does Global Warming Really Matter?"

Milloy says Mother Jones has taken "old information and sloppily tried to insinuate that ExxonMobil has a say in what I write in my Fox column, which is entirely false. . . . My columns are based on what I believe and no one pays me to believe anything." Despite a mainstream scientific consensus, Milloy says that "the hysteria about global warming is entirely junk science-based" and that he sees no need to disclose the ExxonMobil funding in his writing because it's not "relevant."

ExxonMobil spokeswoman Lauren Kerr says groups funded by the company "address a wide range of issues important to our industry, not just climate change." The oil giant believes the evidence on greenhouse gas emissions "remains inconclusive," she says, and "the funding question only seems to become a relevant issue to the media when it's a question of industry contributions or lobbying -- not when the money comes from the environmental lobby."

Nonexistent Mission

Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer wrote last week that the Bush administration dispatched "self-appointed morals czar" William Bennett in 2003 to tell Vatican officials that the invasion of Iraq would be a just war. This was news to Bennett, who says he never took such a trip and can't understand why Scheer never called him.

Scheer says he was "sloppy" in picking up the tale from the Houston Catholic Worker. "I should have been more careful," he says. Says Times Opinion Editor Michael Kinsley: "I guess I would wonder why a story this juicy would have only been in some Catholic newspaper. That would make me want to check it out."

Premature Journalism

Barbara Stewart, the Boston Globe freelancer dropped over her story about a Canadian seal hunt that had not yet taken place, says she never meant to deceive anyone. She just never checked back to learn that the scheduled hunt had been delayed by bad weather.

"The whole situation, while resulting from an egregious, massive, stupid [screwup] on my part, unbelievable carelessness, was nevertheless not malicious fabrication as in: pretending I was there and deliberately making up a whole scene and attempting to pass it off," Stewart says by e-mail.

"It was stupider and more boring and more flat out dumb on my part. Quite dumb. Remarkably dumb. But not vicious and not really a scandal, for heaven's sake."


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