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Multiple Layers of Reality

As a back-to-school college student I was awed by a book of primary documents about modern Jewish history -- 20 years later I can still reach through the clutter and pull that well-thumbed volume off the shelf.

Subtitled ?a documentary history,? it was stuffed with the text of items other history books only mentioned. Instead of relying on someone else?s interpretation, I not only could read the text (sometimes translated), I could look at it in context of other items in the chronologically arranged book.

The site doesn?t have to draw large numbers, though, as long as some of the visitors write or air stories about what they read there.

That ability to add texture is one of the greatest assets of the Web. It can work for journalists and, as we have seen in recent weeks it can work against them. Print or broadcast reports can be buttressed online. But others can use it to tell their own story, creating a source book of their own to combat the journalist?s version.

That?s what Rhonda Roland Shearer did in response to what she and others involved with the World Trade Center clean-up saw as serious missteps on the part of author William Langewiesche, acclaimed for his lengthy and detailed three-part series in The Atlantic Monthly on the post-attack efforts.

Outraged by mentions of alleged looting by rescue personnel and upset by the way firefighters in particular were portrayed, Shearer, the widow of Stephen Jay Gould, and a committee (the WTC Living History Project Group), including a cross-section of those involved at Ground Zero, put together a point-by-point rebuttal. They pulled sections from the Internet version of the series and placed their own comments to the side. The headings: ?Quotes with factual errors? and ?Corrected facts.?

The number of visitors to The WTC Living History Project hasn?t broken 3,000. The site doesn?t have to draw large numbers, though, as long as some of the visitors write or air stories about what they read there. The effort gained serious attention a few weeks ago when firefighters and others protested the author?s appearances at New York-area stores as he promoted the book based on the series, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.

Of course, Shearer?s version can?t be automatically accepted as the truth either. Just because someone says there?s an error doesn?t mean it?s a factual error; it can be a difference of opinion or style.  But when I went to the site after being asked to take a look because the committee invokes the SPJ Code of Ethics as a standard that Langewiesche should have followed, I was impressed by the way the challenge to him had been handled. (Although I would prefer that the committee respect copyright by linking directly to stories instead of putting them on their site.)

I was expecting something quite different. After all, Shearer has been described by other journalists as ?largely incoherent? and ?strident.? What I saw was a methodical, although hardly unemotional, detailing of the qualms the group had with the story. Some of it struck me as picking nits but the overall effect left me with serious questions about Langewiesche?s methods. It was a vivid reminder that just because something is well written and appears in a trusted publication doesn?t mean it should be taken as gospel.

Granted, unlike Timothy Noah, who looked at the same material and still felt more than comfortable with Langewiesche, I hadn?t read the series, instead setting aside the magazines as they came in for ?later.? If I had read the series first I might have felt completely different. I hope, though, however taken I am by a writer?s style and obvious talent and effort I would still be concerned about his methods.

Langewiesche explained carefully in several interviews that he wanted to avoid the mythologizing of the people at Ground Zero or The Pile, as those working at the site call it. The same should hold true for his own work -- the aura shouldn?t overwhelm the reality.

Some of my concerns stem from not being sure of Langewiesche?s actual role. If what he was doing was reporting -- and not just recording his own impressions -- he appears to have left out a few steps, like corroborating claims and confirming information.
 
He also chose not to identify himself overtly as a journalist, holding conversations with people who became part of his story without knowing they were being ?observed? or interviewed.

Those concerns extended to the magazine, which proclaims five months of fact checking but never contacted officials at the New York Fire Department or others to verify the now-disputed details in the series -- and to the book publisher -- who told Publishers Weekly it relied on the magazine?s fact checking instead of doing a full legal review.

Because the Web is dynamic I?ve been able not only to read the Project?s comments but to add in other elements as they are published: the audio of an NPR interview with Langewiesche; articles from Newsday or the Los Angeles Times, courtesy of their corresponding Web sites; comments on the sparsely visited bulletin board at wtclivinghistory.com (set up as a virtual bulletin board complete with thumb tacks), etc. Without a subscription to Nexis, I can compare his answers to various interviewers.

Thanks to the Internet, I?m not reliant on Langewiesche or Shearer.

I?m also not the average reader, which is why it?s not enough to say this information is available and the reader can choose. The average reader has no reason to have any qualms about something published in The Atlantic Monthly or a book from an imprint of Farrar Straus Giroux.

In Boston, Susan E. Gallagher isn?t aiming her work at the average reader either. The member of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and Surviviors First is on a mission to keep the Boston Globe from winning the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of clergy abuse. Her contention: the Globe?s Spotlight Team is ignoring women who were abused  by clergy.

Just as the Globe or any other paper would have to build a case that it should be awarded a Pulitzer should it choose to enter, Gallagher has created a Web site devoted to building a case against the paper. She, too, raises questions about methodology and coverage that are worth at least examining.

Gallagher doesn?t have the reach of the Globe but she doesn?t have to rely on the paper to make herself heard. When the Globe rejected her Op-Ed article accusing the Spotlight Team of ignoring women, she published it online  and included her correspondence from Ombudsman Chris Chinlund.

Ditto for an e-mail interchange she had with Walter Robinson, the editor in charge of the Spotlight Team.

Again, just because she has the passion to create a Web site devoted to telling what she sees as the real story doesn?t mean everything she says is right or that the paper has committed intentional errors in the way editors chose to cover a complicated story that so far spans 16 months and hundreds of articles.

For its part, the Globe has built an impressive, dynamic site of its own with coverage divided into 10 categories, chronologically arranged recent coverage, a document library and numerous other items, including, of course, excerpts from the Globe?s own book on the subject.

Online news outlets can use this to their own advantage as the Seattle Times did last year with its controversial series "Uninformed Consent." When pre-Pulitzer lobbying against the series went public, I headed straight to the site to see what the fuss was about. What I found was a strong series backed up by numerous supporting documents. SeattleTimes.com didn?t stop there; the package included the hospital?s response, a glossary and who?s who, continuing coverage and most important for me, reader?s comments voicing criticism as well as praise. Users could get as much information as they wanted or they could let the series stand on its own. The series wound up as a Pulitzer finalist.

While newspapers used to have the last word, unless an issue went to court, the Web makes it possible for anyone to chime in.  There are plenty of variations. Bloggers turn on a dime when it comes to refuting something they?ve heard or read. People frustrated by the way they were portrayed in an interview can publish their own transcript. Corporations put up Web sites. Those passionate about a cause devote time and energy as volunteers to getting their message across. (I get messages about coverage of the Middle East almost daily.)

Even so, it?s still much too easy to get locked into the traditional mentality: ?We?re right, we did a lot of careful work and therefore they?re wrong.?

Staci D. Kramer is Editor at Large at Cable World and was a contributing editor to Inside.com. Based in University City, Mo., Kramer's clients have included Time, Life, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Multichannel News, APBNews.com, mediainfo.com, Editor & Publisher, The Sporting News, St. Louis magazine, several major papers in Canada, and numerous others. Her work has been syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, reprinted in two books and she has even co-produced a segment for "Nightline."

 

News briefs from around the world give you the latest developments that affect online journalism.
American Ground, by William Langewiesche
Betrayed Again: A Critique of Boston Globe Coverage of the Scandal in the Catholic Church
Gallagher: Ombud's Response
Gallagher: Spotlight on the Spotlight Team
McSweeney's: Clarification Page
Other articles by Staci D. Kramer
Publishers Weekly: At Ground Zero of a Controversy, An Unlikely Publisher
Seattle Times: Uninformed Consent
The Atlantic: Excerpts From "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center"
The Boston Globe: Abuse in the Catholic Church
The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History
Timothy Noah: Lay Off Langewiesche
WTC Ground Zero Relief
WTC Living History Project Group