Hack Roast: When Citizens Attack ... Reporters

Article excerpt

ON NOVEMBER 30, 1999, Al Gore told a high school class in New Hampshire about how, 20 years earlier, a girl their age had informed his congressional office about toxic waste problems in her hometown of Toone, Tennessee. The resulting Capitol Hill hearings, which Gore sponsored, also investigated a much more famous polluted area of upstate New York called Love Canal. "Toone, Tennessee--that was the one that you didn't hear of," the then-vice president told the Granite State students. "But that was the one that started it all."

The next day, both The Washington Post and The New York Times changed the wording of that last quote, replacing "But that" with "I," making it seem as though Gore was trying to take credit for discovering the Love Canal disaster. Hours later, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson issued a press release blasting Gore for his "pattern of phoniness" while mutating the quote still further: "I was the one who started it all," the alleged remark now read.

Even though the Times and Post both ended up running corrections more than a week later (under duress from the outraged high schoolers), and several media critics eventually deconstructed the tale, the story of Al Gore "discovering" the Love Canal became a fixture in Campaign 200% to be repeated in several hundred newspapers and on every major news network in America.

In 2004 it's much harder to get away with such shaggy-dog reporting, thanks to a tidal wave of amateur online media criticism that has finally started to break into professional newsrooms. On January 4, for example, Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler transformed a legitimate Howard Dean debate point ("I opposed the Iraq War; with the exception of Dennis [Kucinich] and Carol [Moseley Braun], everybody else supported it") into a lie: "I opposed the Iraq War when everybody else up here was for it. "The misquote was picked up by The Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, and dozens of other newspapers, but it was also flagged by several pro-Dean sites and the popular blog Daily Kos. Within a few days Pickler acknowledged the error, the AP ran a correction, and a potential urban legend about Dean's intemperate fabulism was strangled in the crib.

The 2000 and even 1996 presidential circuses were already pestered by online media critics and citizen dart blowers--the Gore-Love Canal story was dismantled in real time by D.C. comedian Bob Somerby, who edits the invaluable Daily Howler site but this year several new factors have thrust the kibitzers inside the mainstream news cycle. Web strategy is now central, not marginal, to the campaigns; political weblogs have continued their spectacular growth; and the scrutinizers' gazes have shifted from the op-ed pages and weekend gabfests to the nuts-and-bolts reporting itself.

This last change in emphasis has coincided with a spike in professional news organizations' appetite for blogger-style media criticism. Both trends are illustrated by the changing fortunes of 25-year-old Bryan Keefer.

In April 2001 Keefer, his high school chum Brendan Nyhan, and Nyhan's college buddy Ben Fritz launched a site called Spinsanity.org, "dedicated to tracking and analyzing the increasingly pervasive form of spin that we believe is corroding American political discourse." Although the startlingly earnest editors "all have been politically active in Democratic and progressive politics" (as they dutifully disclose), the site has been scrupulously nonpartisan in its debunking of media myths and lancing of rhetorical hyperbole, from Michael Moore and Robert Scheer to Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. Keefer's creation has become a valued resource, but aside from a small syndication deal with Salon, professional appreciation of Spinsanity has mostly been limited to the currency of citations.

Until January of this year, that is. That's when The Philadelphia Inquirer began running a weekly column of original Spinsanity material on its op-ed page, and when Keefer started working full-time as the assistant managing editor of a brand new journalism-parsing weblog called The Campaign Desk (campaigndesk. …