The media learn to accept their fair share of blame
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Like other critics, Jones believes it was honorable and appropriate for the Times to explain itself. But some, like Boehlert, don't think the paper went far enough, particularly with what he says is a pattern of alarmist reporting by the Times's Pulitzer-Prizewinning investigative journalist Jeff Gerth. "The Times very much focused on, isolated, and pretended the Wen Ho Lee coverage was not symptomatic of a larger pattern," says Boehlert, citing Whitewater and the alleged transfer of satellite technology to China by a US defense contractor as earlier stories that have raised questions.Skip to next paragraph
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This movement toward more external criticism, as well as internal soul searching, is a product of the new "interactive journalism" that is evolving on the Internet.
And while Mr. Rosenstiel contends this is new and increasingly needed in the digital age, he says it also harks back to the 1920s, when "objectivity" first entered journalistic ethics.
"The birth of objectivity came out of a growing recognition that people were not objective, that you could
gather facts that were all true and come up with a totally distorted report," says Rosenstiel. "It was after the birth of post-modernism and Freud that journalists began realizing that just marshalling facts is ridiculously naive - what about all of the unconscious bias we bring to these facts?"
Technology also played a crucial role in alerting the public to what critics say was the Times's bias in early Lee coverage. Asian-Americans, who saw the treatment of Lee as ethnically biased and overly hysterical, organized over the Internet, sending out thousands of e-mails to the public and others in the media, making Lee's case.
The scientific community also came to his defense, writing opinion columns and letters to the editor about routine scientific practice in the nation's nuclear-weapons labs, which much of the media had until then ignored.
It all had an effect. Other news outlets began writing more skeptical stories, questioning investigators' motives and tactics. Even The New York Times later reported that the FBI's case was "circumstantial and therefore weak."
But the initial media coverage had stoked the flames of indignation on Capitol Hill, and even after the later stories appeared, Lee was indicted, arrested, and spent nine months in solitary confinement.
"The main lesson to be learned is that we have to find an effective way to verify information given to us by government sources who have an agenda," says Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Media critics hope the episode will continue to force more self-examination in the press at a time when technology has fueled a frenzy of competition and a lowering of overall standards.
Jones also hopes other news organizations don't just write about what The New York Times did wrong, but also turn a skeptical eye to their own coverage.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society