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Policing the Press

The Baltimore Sun

To be a critic in the old days, you had to have a list of intellectual credentials as long as your arm and be employed by a newspaper or a magazine.

Now, everyone's a critic, and media outlets themselves are in the crosshairs.

The burgeoning world of the Internet is filled with people - some qualified, many not - who call themselves media critics. Their stock in trade is, in many cases, abuse, and their targets are the traditional media they'd like to replace.

"You've got this explosion of sites and blogs, some run by experienced journalists and many run by people who are learning the ropes on the fly," said Fabrice Florin, founder of NewsTrust, an online journalism project launched in November that rates news stories according to established standards of quality. "There's this tsunami of information that's hard to sort out."

The wave of critiques comes from sites that monitor "liberal media bias" and "conservative misinformation." It comes from bloggers who focus exclusively on the alleged offenses of Fox News Channel and others whose obsession is the "treasonous" New York Times. A site that lambastes both the media and politicians is called Crooks and Liars, and a blog named Russert Watch looks exclusively at the work of the host of NBC's Meet the Press.

Added to the mix are older organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a "national media watch group" that refers to itself as progressive, and the Media Research Center, whose self-proclaimed conservatism dictates its denunciations of media misdeeds.

All this at a time when the mainstream media are being buffeted by economic downturns, layoffs and retrenchments that make it more difficult to do the kind of job to which readers and viewers were accustomed. Financial woes have also meant that news organizations are employing fewer ombudsmen or "public editors" than before - the very people whose job it is to monitor the quality of the organization's output from within.

Some media criticism sites are widely respected within the profession for their care in checking facts and balancing the comments of critics with responses.

Among the most popular of these professionally edited sites are Romenesko, run by the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization in St. Petersburg, Fla.; CJRDaily, a round-up of media criticism from the Columbia Journalism Review, a bi-monthly publication of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and "Press Box," media columnist Jack Shafer's slot on the Web magazine Slate.

Journalists at many papers say such sites serve a useful purpose in exposing shoddy practices or improper behavior by editors, reporters or publishers.

Florin's NewsTrust site aims to spotlight excellence. Funded by The Global Center, a nonprofit educational foundation established by Rory O'Connor, a documentary filmmaker and journalist, News Trust hopes to help support itself by offering media outlets its rating service, which would enable readers and viewers to rate stories based on criteria such as fairness, objectivity, factual evidence, clarity and relative importance. "There's a lot of great journalism out there," Florin said. "We just want to make it come to the forefront."

But some critics on other Internet sites are far less careful.

"The 'policing' is chaotic and sporadic, with most people too busy to pay enough attention to the news to fully comprehend," said John Hartman, who teaches journalism at Central Michigan University. "Journalism professors should pick up the critic slack, but most of us are too busy courting favor to get favors and jobs for our students and seeking grants from newspapers and their foundations to be willing to do any eye-poking."

The fact that much of the Internet criticism is politically motivated detracts from what should be its central message, said Jameson Foser, managing director of Media Matters for America, which was founded in 2004 with the aim of monitoring "conservative misinformation" but which in reality appears to go after any media error it finds, no matter what its ideological stripe.

"Good media criticism focuses on the content of news reports rather than trying to ascertain the intent behind them," he said. "We don't care where it comes from. We're not particularly concerned about who said it or why we think they may have gotten it wrong, but what they got wrong. So we'll criticize The New York Times as much as we'll criticize Fox News."

"Absent facts or a rational complaint, criticism isn't as valid to a reader," Foser said. "And journalists, in assessing the criticism that they get, should focus on the substance of it rather than on the ideology of the critic."

The plethora of media criticism, said Foser, is good for news organizations and for consumers of news.

"Anyone can benefit from someone looking at your work and saying, 'Look, here's where you missed the boat'," he said. "That's as true of journalists as it is in any other profession."

However, there is no benefit in self-appointed critics "calling you names," said Foser, who was involved in Democratic political campaigns for many years and whose organization employs 40 people in Washington and 10 in Denver.

And yet name-calling and other forms of invective are very much a part of some Web media criticism.

"People see bias everywhere," said Rich Noyes, research director at the Media Research Center, which was founded in 1987, long before the Internet, and published a conservative newsletter, MediaWatch, until 1999. "Conservatives see liberal bias, liberals see conservative bias, and moderates don't trust anybody."

The MRC site, for instance, is replete with postings that carry headlines such as, "Ten Years of Matt Lauer's Liberal Bias" and "NBC Points Out New Orleans Deadlier Than Iraq for Americans" and "The Times Corrects Its Phony Abortion Story."

The site also hosts blogs such as TimesWatch, which it says is dedicated to "documenting and exposing the liberal political agenda of The New York Times," and NewsBusters, which has similar aim but casts a wider net.

Noyes said his organization recently conducted a study of Iraq coverage by the cable news networks and found that Fox News Channel "spent more time on things that were being achieved," such as the killing last June in Iraq of the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, while CNN "put more airtime on allegations of wrongdoing" by U.S. troops, such as the killings of civilians in Haditha.

"CNN showed a little overkill, whereas Fox kept it in perspective," said Noyes, who noted that the MRC site does give kudos on occasion to let journalists know that "we can recognize when they do the right thing."

Paul Moore, the public editor of The Sun, said that too much of the current media criticism is "by nature, ideologically driven or agenda-driven," but that some of it is effective nonetheless. Moore, like other public editors, is not a spokesman for the paper and does not report to the news department, but rather represents the interests of readers, many of whom write to him or call regularly.

"A lot of what you get is of dubious value," said Moore, a 30-year veteran of the business who was previously employed at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Philadelphia Inquirer. "You learn to make distinctions between real readers of the paper and people who, at best, have a passing acquaintance with the paper and are picking stuff up off the radio or the Internet. Some of it will hit a kernel of truth. They'll come across something that is problematic."

John Amato, a 48-year-old sax and flute player who toured with Duran Duran and recorded with Ringo Starr, founded the Crooks and Liars site in October 2003 from his home in Los Angeles after becoming increasingly angry at what he deemed were the prevarications of the Bush administration and the virtually unwavering support it received from outlets such as Fox News.

"I'll do more about Fox because they're so blatant, but everyone is sort of guilty," said Amato, who calls himself a registered independent. "I don't want to get people fired; what I want is for the media to do a better job. The right wants to invalidate the media; I want it to be truthful. I can live with everybody as long as they're honest."

A site that monitors Fox News exclusively is News Hounds, whose motto is "We watch Fox so you don't have to." Christine Bradley, a piano teacher in San Anselmo, Calif., and one of nine volunteers who monitor Fox News for the News Hounds site, said she does it "because somebody has to fight back."

"We know Fox is listening because they've mentioned us," said Bradley, whose site was launched before the 2004 election and, she estimated, gets 20,000 visits a day.

"They use a lot of tricks that you would use in a courtroom to sway the jury," said Bradley, the daughter of an editor at a small Catholic newspaper. "The trouble is that there's no opposing counsel to say, 'I object.' It amazes me how they've mesmerized the very people, the working-class people, who should oppose them."

Brent Cunningham, managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review, founded in 1961 and for years virtually the only such player in the field, said much of the current criticism of the media is prompted by years-old "pent-up frustration" that now has an outlet on the Internet.

"Anyone with a computer can now become a publisher," said Cunningham, who began his career at the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia. "The evolution of Web logs tapped into a real interest, sometimes born of a responsible critic and sometimes just an angry person wanting to tee off on the media. A lot of it is put out there by people who have no idea how hard it is to do journalism well. I'm a firm believer in journalism that's grounded in intellectually really honest reporting."

But, Cunningham said, much of the criticism should not be surprising.

"Traditional journalism has dug a bit of this hole itself, with that imperious 'We're delivering the truth to you every day' attitude," he said. "We all knew they were putting out what the reporter could cobble together on deadline."

Some journalists have not helped their own cause: Jayson Blair and Judith Miller at The Times; Jack Kelley at USA Today; Janet Cooke at The Washington Post; Stephen Glass at The New Republic and Mike Barnicle at The Boston Globe all deserved, to greater or lesser degrees, the opprobrium that was heaped on them and contributed to the public mistrust of the media that, in turn, led to more intense critical attention.

Craig Aaron, communications director for Free Press, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization working to increase public participation in the media, said the 24-hour cacophony of media criticism "has a way of really increasing the volume on a given scandal," such as the unproven documents about President Bush's fractured military career that tarnished Dan Rather's tenure at CBS News and led to his early retirement from the network.

"A scandal like that can go from 0 to 60 faster than it ever did before," said Aaron, whose organization is sponsoring a conference on media reform this weekend in Memphis.

"But the criticism can also have a shorter shelf life - instant commentary that's instantly forgotten," he said. "Some folks don't have the traditional qualifications of a media critic or an ombudsman, and yet they might actually do a better or more entertaining job."

Nick.Madigan@baltsun.com

Monitoring the media

Here is a sampling of Internet media criticism sites:

CJRDaily: A roundup of media criticism from Columbia Journalism Review: http:--www.cjrdaily.org

Romenesko: The daily go-to guy for media coverage, from the Poynter Institute: http:--www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45

Editor & Publisher: In-depth coverage of the North American newspaper industry: http:--www.editorandpublisher.com

American Journalism Review: Continuing assessment of news and industry issues: http:--www.ajr.org

Press Box: Media columnist Jack Shafer's slot on Slate: http:--www.slate.com/id/2157395/?nav=fix

NewsVine: New site enables readers to comment and vote on news articles: http:--www.newsvine.com

Reliable Sources: Howard Kurtz dissects media coverage Sundays on CNN: http:--www.cnn.com/CNN/Programs/reliable.sources

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Criticizing media bias and censorship since 1986: http:--www.fair.org

Media Research Center: Dedicated to "bringing political balance" to the media: http:--www.mediaresearch.org

Crooks and Liars: Exposing mendacity in media and government: http:--www.crooksandliars.com

News Hounds: "We watch Fox so you don't have to": http:--www.newshounds.us

NewsTrust: A self-described "guide to good journalism": http:--beta.newstrust.net

Free Press: An organization working to reform the media: http:--freepress.net

Russert Watch: A blog about the Meet the Press host and his guests: http:--www.huffingtonpost.com/russertwatch

Media Matters for America: Monitors "conservative misinformation" in the U.S. media: http:--mediamatters.org

NewsBusters: "Exposing and combating liberal media bias": http:--newsbusters.org

TimesWatch: "Exposing the liberal political agenda of The New York Times": http:--www.timeswatch.org

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