The media learn to accept their fair share of blame
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With the click of a few keys, readers now routinely give reporters a piece of their mind, sound off to editors, or send out thousands of e-mails to friends and associates making their own case in a story.
The result: The powerful fourth estate - once renown for circling the wagons at the slightest hint of criticism - finds itself in the position, more and more, of having to explain itself.
Technology has given readers and viewers more access to the media, transforming the traditional news model from the "esteemed journalist" to the "trusting consumer" into a conversation with a far more skeptical audience.
"Usually news speaks for itself, but when reporting leaves questions in the public's mind, I think it's appropriate and increasingly necessary for journalists to explain how and why they made the decisions that they did about coverage," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.
The latest example: The New York Times and its highly unusual, 1,600-plus word "assessment" of where its coverage went wrong in the Wen Ho Lee story.
Even some of the harshest critics of the paper's initial stories - it called the case, which crumbled this month, "the most damaging espionage of the post-cold war era" - commended the paper for its action this week.
"On the one hand, it was very bold," says Eric Boehlert of the online magazine Salon.com who wrote "How The New York Times Helped Railroad Wen Ho Lee." "On the other, I thought they very skillfully pulled their punches."
The powerful paper, which other news organizations routinely follow, insisted it that on the whole it remains "proud of the work that brought into the open a major national security problem." But it also admitted several crucial errors, which in the end did not give Dr. Lee the "full benefit of the doubt."
Top on that list, the early articles adopted an alarmist tone without being skeptical enough of the FBI's case against the Taiwanese-born scientist, which turned out to be weak, at best. "A factual error ... is not nearly as pernicious or as important as an error of editorial judgment over time," says Alex Jones, the co-author of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times. "This is a great lesson, not just for The New York Times but for everyone in journalism."
Mr. Jones notes there's a temptation in the heat of the pursuit of what appears to be a clear villain to lose the journalistic distance, which is crucial, particularly when issues like the national interest are invoked. "This is a model of how The New York Times could be right in what it reported factually, but mainly wrong, because of what it didn't report and a lack of distance and dispassion," says Jones, a former media writer for The New York Times.