Political Internet sites weave tangled Web for media

Proliferation of Web pages on candidates raises ethical, accountability

Like an internet paparazzo, the man who calls himself "Jerry Politex" knows just about everything there is to know about Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

His Bush Watch Web site gathers every article ever written about the governor, from a 1967 engagement announcement to a trove of investigative pieces into Mr. Bush's business dealings. And while he doesn't make a penny for his effort, Politex gets referrals to his Web site from high places, like The New York Times and the Internet company, Yahoo!

All of this, of course, could be very bad news for Governor Bush. After all, if the affable Texas governor does decide to seek the presidency, he will have a tireless foe determined to find - and publish - his every flaw.

"What I'm interested in is finding a reader who might take the information that I have and run with it," says Politex (who takes on the pseudonym to protect his, unknown, day job.)

As for gathering stories, "right now I do it all by hand. That's how I walk my beat."

To some, Politex might seem to be a harmless cyber-crank. But with more than 40 percent of American adults - including most journalists - using the Internet to gather information, Web sites like his Bush Watch are already changing the tone and tempo of coverage for the 2000 presidential campaign.

Their proliferation is raising new questions of accuracy and accountability in newsrooms across the country and altering how campaign officials disseminate information.

Journalists who grew accustomed to knowing news before their audience did now find themselves scooped on the Web. And campaign officials, who once dealt with a small pack of traditional reporters, now find they must update their methods and embrace technology or perish.

"The penetration of the Internet in the market is so high, I think it's reaching a critical mass, and it's going to be a political weapon in the next election campaign," says Rosental Alves, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "It makes available a volume of information that we have never seen before."

Ethics of what to use

In many ways, the 2000 election will offer the most critical test yet of how media outlets deal with the plethora of information in cyberspace - and the ethical questions that arise from it.

Today, every major campaign, Democratic and Republican, has set up a Web site, complete with past speeches, future campaign stops, and chat rooms where supporters can offer feedback. In fact, Republican Steve Forbes made a bit of history by announcing his presidential candidacy during an Internet press conference.

But the very nature of the Web is that it belongs to no establishment, and for every official site, there are dozens that exist to analyze - and criticize - the leading candidates.

In Nashua, N.H., radio talk show host Todd Feinburg has created a site called Attitude@nh.com, where he offers his own libertarian perspective on the candidates who increasingly frequent his state.

"I see the Internet as a protection," says Mr. Feinburg, who works for WSMN-AM. "Look at the traditional news media. Why is Clinton's activity always the first two or three stories of any TV news broadcast? It doesn't mean he did anything significant. It means they have reporters assigned to the White House who have to file stories. And newspapers, they all follow the wires."

In Indianapolis, Erik Hromadka, a former Republican campaign worker, has created 2000GOP.com, a one-stop newsstand for information on Republican candidates.

"I came to the realization that I have more information in my living room than Dan Rather had during his newscast," says Mr. Hromadka, who may be moving into new campaign-financing territory by encouraging readers to buy banner ads on his Web site for candidates. "The Internet is leveling the playing field somewhat by making more information available to people."

Of course, not all of the information on the World Wide Web is positive. Nor is it necessarily true. Indeed, the very speed of the Internet means that much of the information receives little editorial scrutiny.

Where are the fact checkers

This means that reporters who rely on the Internet for tips may be in for one goose chase after another.

"I think there will be change because of the Internet, but it's going to mostly manifest itself in the traditional news media," says Randall Bezanson, a law professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "It's the journalists who will use these sites as one efficient source of information. The problem is that this places hydraulic pressure on the editorial process, to speed up the filtering, because you don't want to be old news."

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes has already seen the news cycle speed up, with occasionally humorous effects.

Consider a recent call to Ms. Hughes's office. The Internet-based reporter wanted a response to the criticism of Governor Bush by other potential candidates on a particular issue. The only problem was that the candidates hadn't even uttered the criticism yet. The reporter was just anticipating the possibility of the criticism.

"Basically, they're trading in gossip," says Hughes, herself a former TV reporter. "The implications for journalists are interesting. When does the rumor end and where do you draw the line?"

Roger Salazar, press secretary for the Gore 2000 campaign, says he treats all journalists the same: with caution. "I think we're equally wary of things that are not real news."

Similarly, Juleanna Weiss, press secretary for the Forbes 2000 campaign, says her office doesn't treat cyberjournalists any different than reporters from the major media. "If we can't understand why they'd want it," she says, "I'm hesitant to provide it."

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