January 26, 2005

Round 247 of newspaper backlash against post-typewriter technology

Why the Dallas Morning News needs to wake up and smell the coffee.


A Dallas Morning News editorial: "If those who disseminate news by blog and e-mail want to be taken seriously, they've got to mind their accuracy just like those of us still living in the dark ages of ink and paper—especially when they're taking potshots at us."

At this point you might think the DMN has uncovered some scandal in Internet journalism. Surely it would have to rise to the level of payola, or plagiarism, or pathetic errors—the sorts of things that have afflicted ink and paper, as well as the airwaves, in recent years.

But no, the DMN is just ranting about an e-mail forward decrying the lack of media coverage of a piece of "good news" out of Iraq—about "an Iraqi artist who used bronze from a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein to sculpt a tribute to the U.S. soldiers who died in liberating his country," in the words of DMN. The anonymous e-mail writer's big sin: failing to note that the DMN, the Wall Street Journal, and others, did indeed cover this story. The offending line: "The media avoids it because it does not have the shock effect that a flashed breast or controversy of politics does." So, big deal. The e-mail said the media isn't covering the story, but in fact a few papers did cover it. Could be a difference of opinion, not an error.

But let's say the e-mail's alleged sin was much worse. Stretching a criticism of it into an argument about the merits of an entire medium is absurd. It's about as fair as bashing the DMN and all its newspaper brethren because it shares the ink-and-paper characteristics of printed government propaganda.

Amazingly, this is the second time in three days that the DMN has devoted commentary space to deriding a humble e-mail forward. On Saturday, columnist Steve Blow concluded an entire column about this e-mail like this: "One of the joys of journalism is that often, alongside those dreary problems, we also get to tell stories of beauty and inspiration—like a dictator's statues turned into a symbol of gratitude and respect. And when a story like that is used to knock you in the head, well, it makes you a little mad—and a whole lot sad."

The saddest thing is that the e-mail forward does have a grievous error, one the DMN fails to mention. The e-mail forward, as replicated on, claims that the sculptor's work was inspired by his gratitude toward the American forces. But as the Wall Street Journal reported, the sculptor was paid to produce the work and was critical of the U.S. "I made the statues of Saddam—even though I didn't want to—because I needed money for my family and to finish my education," he said. "And I decided to make statues for the Americans for the exact same reasons." That the sculptor was paid for his work wasn't made clear by a Jan. 2004 article about the sculptor in Army News Service, which may have seeded the later media coverage. The payment was made clear, but not prominently, in the DMN's story about the sculpture, which was mostly a fluff piece and didn't include an interview of the sculptor nor his name.

Postscript: One of the great things about Internet news, when used well, is that one can link to sources. Yet the DMN, perhaps distracted by dreams of the halcyon era before computers mussed things up, fails to link to any of its own prior articles that it refers to in the editorial.

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