Eight days ago, says Milwaukee blogger Jim McAdams, New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro called him and was "pretty irate."A couple of weeks ago, I noticed in my hit counter that someone from the New York Times had found Palousitics by conducting a Blogger search using the string “Wal-Mart and homeless”. That was no doubt in reference to a story sent out by Marshall Manson, the Wal-Mart PR flack, about how the unions are hiring homeless people to picket against Wal-Mart.
"Do you get your jollies out of this?" McAdams recalls Barbaro asking.
What McAdams did was to scoop Barbaro on his story about how Wal-Mart was sending tips and information to sympathetic bloggers as a way of getting its message out. Barbaro, who maintains he was not irate, says he was "disappointed" that McAdams and other bloggers would "post what it is I was reporting on" after he sent them e-mails seeking comment -- with a request that the e-mails not be publicized. The online chatter enabled the Wall Street Journal to publish a short piece the same day as the Times.
McAdams, who teaches political science at Marquette University, says he had no obligation to keep confidential the fact that a reporter had sent him an e-mail. "You're talking about a bunch of conservative, pro-business bloggers who are sympathetic to Wal-Mart," he says. "This isn't really news. Wal-Mart is simply doing with bloggers what flacks have been doing with broadcast and print media for decades." In his posting, McAdams listed all the e-mails he had gotten from Wal-Mart's PR firm, Edelman, saying he used some and ignored others.
Barbaro, a former Washington Post staffer, reported that some of the bloggers were running messages from a Wal-Mart publicist verbatim, without identifying the source. For instance, some sites used the retailer's precise language in linking to commentary on legislation to force Wal-Mart to improve health benefits: "All across the country, newspaper editorial boards -- no great friends of business -- are ripping the bills."
Barbaro says he was exploring legitimate questions about online ethics and "I do not want to come off as someone who's angry at bloggers because I'm not. I think bloggers serve an enormously important role."
Bob Beller, a Fredericksburg military contractor who runs the blog Crazy Politico's Rantings, cooperated with the Times and says Barbaro was "very professional." But he says the story was "more negative" than he expected and "made it sound slightly dirty" for bloggers to use material from Wal-Mart.
Brian Pickrell, an Iowa restaurant manager whose self-described "Republican/conservative" blog is called Iowa Voice, wrote that he was "not going to grant a single interview to any more of you left-wing hacks," but agreed to an e-mail exchange. Pickrell blames a coding mistake for one instance in which Wal-Mart's views appeared to be his own.
Invoking the Jayson Blair scandal, Pickrell calls it "astonishing" that "someone writing under the masthead of the national newspaper still trying to regain its own credibility for arguably the most sinister and manipulative attempt at plagiarism in journalistic history is so brash" in raising these questions. "I was writing about Wal-Mart long before they or their PR guy got in touch with me."
Richard Edelman, CEO of the public relations giant, has his own blog and reacted to the Times piece immediately: "We encourage all our clients to reach out to the blogosphere. It should be part of any smart communications program." Bloggers, like journalists, "do not need to disclose their sources," Edelman says, "but they should attribute specific content to a company or another blogger if used verbatim."
The funny thing is, I had never heard of that story before this flap, as I am not on Marshall Manson’s mailing list. I didn’t even really know who Manson was until Barbaro contacted me. The post Barbaro found concerned Michael Costello's column in the Lewiston Tribune a few weeks back attacking the "Wal-Mart bill" in Washington. Costello described how the Mid-Atlantic Regional Carpenter's Union hired the homeless to picket non-union work sites. The homeless part had nothing to do with Wal-Mart at all! Ooooops! That’s the trouble sometimes with search engines and the “high journalistic standards of the Old Gray Lady".
Shortly after I noticed the hit from the New York Times, I received the following e-mail:
From: "Michael Barbaro"Barbaro called me later that day and conducted an interview with me for about 20 minutes. I respected his requests for confidentiality. In retrospect, after seeing his story and how my comments were not used, I’m not sure I would do so again.
Sent: Thursday, March 02, 2006 1:54 PM
Subject: New York Times Inquiry
This note is not for publication on your blog.
I am working on a story and several of your blog postings are highly pertinent. May I give you a call? I am reluctant to describe my story over e-mail since, in the past, bloggers have posted my notes, which give my story ideas away to competitors.
Be in touch,
The New York Times
I’d wager that I have blogged more about Wal-Mart than any of the other bloggers mentioned in Barbaro’s story put together. Of the roughly 400 posts on Palousitics, probably 90% of them are about Wal-Mart. However, the vast majority of what I write is in the nature of an op-ed commentary about the Wal-Mart battle in our community, which has dragged on for a year and half now. I have posted some pieces about Wal-Mart from a state or national standpoint that I felt were relevant to Pullman. I got these stories from local newspapers, by Googling, by surfing other blogs, or from tips submitted by readers. I never once received any e-mail from Marshall Manson.
I explained all this to Mr. Barbaro. He seemed incredibly disinterested and ready to dump me. He pressed me instead on the issue of ethics. Wasn’t it unseemly, he asked, that the world’s largest retailer was sending stories to bloggers? Wasn’t it wrong that some bloggers cut and pasted these stories without identifying the source of the information? Barbaro said he could get fired if he did stuff like that.
I answered “No” to both questions. I criticized Wal-Mart for waiting so long to get into the online arena, considering the well-funded and slick operations of both Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch. These union-backed organizations are utilizing campaign-style “war rooms”, PR events, documentaries, blogs, legal strategies, mailing lists, talking points, sample letters, and they even have a college curriculum. What is Wal-Mart doing that is so wrong by responding in kind?
As far as other bloggers go, I told him that everyone has their own style and their own rationale for blogging. On my blog, I always try to link, attribute, etc. But far be it from me to judge others without knowing their individual situation.
Frankly, I was outraged when I read Michael Barbaro’s story. I had correctly anticipated he wouldn’t use my comments, as they didn’t fit with what seemed to be his “conspiracy theory” agenda. My story just wasn’t “juicy” enough. Mentioning the fact that there are some independent pro-Wal-Mart bloggers out there not connected with Marshall Manson would have given the story some balance. But that’s not something the Times is known for when it comes to Wal-Mart.
Howard Kurtz of the Post had written this earlier about the controversy:
I knew a few days ago that the New York Times was planning a piece on big companies like Wal-Mart using friendly bloggers to get their message out.Blogs are the New Media . The Mainstream Media are apprehensive of this, as well as resentful that they have no control or influence over the blogosphere. Elitist liberals and the unions resent anyone who has the audacity to publicly support Wal-Mart. To them, ANYONE supporting Wal-Mart must be a paid hack or part of some corporate conspiracy. Barbaro’s story, then, was a natural for the Times, a chance to swipe at both bloggers and pro-Wal-Mart forces in one fell swoop.
The reason I knew this, of course, is that some of the bloggers posted preemptive pieces after the paper contacted them for comment. (I have very mixed feelings about that, since no reporter wants to get scooped on his own story because he's trying to be fair by calling people. Welcome to life in the blogosphere.)
More interesting, though, is how Michael Barbaro's Times story paints the practice by Wal-Mart and others as faintly disreputable, when you could argue that it's just classic PR, no different than trying to find the right newspaper reporter (or radio talker or cable host) in an effort to get a fair shake.
It's a very different story, obviously, if a blogger runs the corporate spin verbatim, without disclosing the source, just as it would be for a garden-variety reporter to reprint a handout. Whether bloggers are doing that remains in dispute.
What's not in dispute is that what was once dismissed as a pajama-clad brigade is becoming increasingly influential, to the point that giant companies have to worry about what they say. Dell got tarnished, for example, when it dealt shabbily with Jeff Jarvis over his lemon of a laptop. And as I reported the other day, the Pentagon has created a unit to seek good coverage and knock down bad coverage among bloggers.
The better bloggers are going to have to figure out their own standards for dealing with corporate and political flacks, and those who blindly carry water for outside groups will probably lose credibility over time. But I expect them to be in the minority.
Wal-Mart's tactics must have them running scared though, if they had to call out the mighty New York Times to try and discredit a few unknown bloggers. However, only Barbaro and the Times ended up being discredited for running this non-story. It is a tempest in a teacup, much ado about nothing.
Meanwhile, I wonder if Barbaro is being tipped off by someone else HE’S not attributing, perhaps with the intials UFCW?
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