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December 19, 2003

IF YOU SCREW UP, THEY WILL BYPASS YOU:

News executives of most Boston television stations are decidedly unenthusiastic about a Bush administration plan to transmit news footage from Iraq for local TV outlets in an attempt to supplement media coverage from that war-torn country.

The satellite link, dubbed "C-SPAN Baghdad," is designed to put a more positive spin on events and circumvent the major networks by making it possible for press conferences, interviews with troops and dignitaries, and even footage from the field to be transmitted from Iraq for use by regional and local media outlets, according to news accounts.

"I'm kind of appalled by it. I think it's very troubling," said Charles Kravetz, vice president of news at the regional cable news outlet NECN. "I think the government has no business being in the news business."

Tell it to the folks at NPR and PBS -- and the BBC-- Chuck! But, really, I'd be happy if the news business were in the news business, instead of letting itself be embarrassingly scooped by Iraqi dentists with digicams and blogs. After dropping that ball, it takes a lot of chutzpah to complain.

Reader Ian Sollars thinks the problem with the Pentagon's approach is that it's not going far enough:

The Pentagon should REALLY make this (a) available streamed live over the 'Net (Quicktime for preference) and (b) archived on the Web (DivX or MPEG2, and they might as well use BitTorrent while they're at it). Take the disintermediation the whole way. There are bloggers left and right who will troll the feeds for news and scoop big media time after time.

Sounds like a terrific idea to me. I wonder if that's what Kravetz is worried about? (More here.) Hey, here's another reason why this war isn't Vietnam -- this time around, it's the news media who don't want the real story to get out. . . .

UPDATE: Hey, just got this email from Daniel Okrent:

I've been in touch with the Times's Baghdad bureau and the paper's foreign desk, who attribute the failure to cover the story in detail (a three-column picture did appear in the paper) to two things: The organizers of the demonstration failed to alert the Times in advance. And, more crucially, the responsible parties at the Times dropped the ball. As you might imagine, life can be difficult and work terribly complicated for journalists in a war zone. Still, the story should have received more thorough coverage.

I am sending a copy of this explanation to newsroom management.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Okrent
Public Editor

Nice. Hope it'll make Okrent's column. I didn't see the picture -- I guess it was only in the print edition, which interestingly now has fewer readers than the Times on the Web.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I'm quite happy with Okrent's letter, and agree with a reader who emails "maybe this paper can be saved after all." On the other hand, reader Julie Berry is less impressed:

The Baghdad bureau of the New York Times didn't know the demonstration was scheduled? I'm a suburban housewife sitting in Washington State, and I knew the demonstration was scheduled.

My eleven year-old comes up with *much* better excuses than that for failing to do his homework. Dropped the ball, indeed.

Well, a couple of times I've found out about events on my own campus from reading West Coast blogs. On the other hand, nobody's, you know, paying me to cover the University of Tennessee. . . . Heather MacFarlane emails:

I live in the Yukon Canada, way up in Northern Canada, and I don't work for a newspaper and I do not have broadband, etc., etc., AND I KNEW THERE WAS GOING TO BE A DEMONSTRATION IN BAGHDAD ON THE 10TH OF DECEMBER. Really. Those 'reporters' in Baghdad are losers.

Perhaps the Times should send them to the Yukon. . . .

MORE: Reader email is skeptical of the Baghdad Bureau's story. John Schedler writes:

I'm just a poor country lawyer in semi-rural Washington State -- and I saw it coming. I think the Baghdad bureau is putting a con-job on Okrent. Okrent buys this kind of garbage/spin? Is he that credulous?

Tom Brosz emails:

The demonstrations on the 10th had been telegraphed by bloggers from Iraq almost three weeks ahead of time, and had been discussed across the internet. Zeyad said there were "reporters from every station in the world" there.

This story was well and truly spiked by editors who thought we didn't really need to know this, and they aren't kidding anybody.

And Prof. Cori Dauber emails:

I notice the nyt public editor is still using the argument "but we published a photo of them." aside from the fact that if they got someone there to take the picture, then they clearly had enough advance warning to, you know, GET PEOPLE THERE there's a bit of difficulty with their hiding behind the argument that the picture provided adequate coverage.

She has more on her blog, where she observes:

How could I have missed a picture of the demonstrations?

I had to page through the paper twice to find it. There's a picture alright (I don't have the capacity to scan from hardcopy, so you will have to settle for my description.) There's a reason I missed it. It's a beautiful picture, very "arty," but it hardly works to convey the information needed. . . .

This image could not be better crafted to not attract the eye, and it could not be better crafted to not tell the narrative story of a demonstration involving thousands of people.

But at least they're responding. Maybe next we'll hear something in response to reports of thuggish behavior by the security forces of the Times' Baghdad bureau.

Finally, Jeff Jarvis comments:

Loveya, Dan, but I don't buy it. And though I think your response is direct and candid, I also don't buy that this is necessarily an ombudsman issue. It is an executive-editor issue of bad news judgment.

This is also an issue of the future vs. the past of journalism. . . .

I do not think it's an issue of principles or bias. It's simply an issue of competence. The Times muffed the story. Plain and simple

Read the whole thing. And read Roger Simon's comments, too: "Okrent is doing his job, but the Times people in Baghdad have not given a satisfactory answer, certainly not remotely like one they would accept from a government spokesmen or politician without follow up."