Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Resignation at CNN Shows the Growing Influence of Blogs

The New York Times
Resignation at CNN Shows the Growing Influence of Blogs

This article was reported by Katharine Q. Seelye, Jacques Steinberg and David F. Gallagher.

With the resignation Friday of a top news executive from CNN, bloggers have laid claim to a prominent media career for the second time in five months.

In September, conservative bloggers exposed flaws in a report by Dan Rather; he subsequently announced that on March 9 he would step down as anchor of the "CBS Evening News." On Friday, after nearly two weeks of intensifying pressure on the Internet, Eason Jordan, the chief news executive at CNN, abruptly resigned after being besieged by the online community. Morever, last week liberal bloggers forced a sketchily credentialed White House reporter to quit his post.

For some bloggers - people who publish the sites known as Web logs - it was a declaration that this was just the beginning. Edward Morrissey, a call center manager who lives near Minneapolis and has written extensively about the Jordan controversy, wrote on his blog, Captain's Quarters (captainsquartersblog.com): "The moral of the story: the media can't just cover up the truth and expect to get away with it - and journalists can't just toss around allegations without substantiation and expect people to believe them anymore."

Mr. Jordan, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in late January, apparently said, according to various witnesses, that he believed the United States military had aimed at journalists and killed 12 of them. There is some uncertainty over his precise language and the forum, which videotaped the conference, has not released the tape. When he quit Friday night, Mr. Jordan said in a statement that, "I never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists."

Some of those most familiar with Mr. Jordan's situation emphasized, in interviews over the weekend, that his resignation should not be read solely as a function of the heat that CNN had been receiving on the Internet, where thousands of messages, many of them from conservatives, had been posted.

Nonetheless, within days of his purported statement, many blog sites were swamped with outraged assertions that he was slandering American troops. In an e-mail message yesterday, Mr. Jordan declined to be interviewed.

But while the bloggers are feeling empowered, some in their ranks are openly questioning where they are headed. One was Jeff Jarvis, the head of the Internet arm of Advance Publications, who publishes a blog at buzzmachine.com. Mr. Jarvis said bloggers should keep their real target in mind. "I wish our goal were not taking off heads but digging up truth," he cautioned.

At the same time, some in the traditional media are growing alarmed as they watch careers being destroyed by what they see as the growing power of rampant, unedited dialogue.

Steve Lovelady, a former editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Wall Street Journal and now managing editor of CJR Daily, the Web site of The Columbia Journalism Review, has been among the most outspoken.

"The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail," he lamented online after Mr. Jordan's resignation. He said that Mr. Jordan cared deeply about the reporters he had sent into battle and was "haunted by the fact that not all of them came back."

Some on line were simply trying to make sense of what happened. "Have we entered an era where our lives can be destroyed by a pack of wolves hacking at their keyboards with no oversight, no editors, and no accountability?" asked a blogger named Mark Coffey, 36, who says he works as an analyst in Austin, Tex. "Or does it mean that we've entered a brave new world where the MSM has become irrelevant," he asked, using blogger shorthand for mainstream media.

His own conclusion is that the mainstream media "is being held to account as never before by the strong force of individual citizens who won't settle for sloppy research and inflammatory comments without foundation, particularly from those with a wide national reach, such as Rather and Eason."

It was a businessman attending the forum in Davos who put Mr. Jordan's comments on the map with a Jan. 28 posting. Rony Abovitz, 34, of Hollywood, Fla., the co-founder of a medical technology company, was invited to Davos and was asked to write for the forum's first-ever blog, his first blogging effort. In an interview yesterday, he said that he had challenged Mr. Jordan's assertion that the United States was taking aim at journalists and asked for evidence.

Mr. Abovitz asked some of the journalists at the event if they were going to write about Mr. Jordan's comments and concluded that they were not because journalists wanted to protect their own. There was also some confusion about whether they could, because the session was officially "off the record."

Mr. Abovitz said the remarks bothered him, and at 2:21 a.m. local time, he posted his write-up on the forum's official blog (www.forumblog.org) under the headline "Do U.S. Troops Target Journalists in Iraq?"

He did not think it would get much attention. But Mr. Jordan's comments zipped around the Web and fired up the conservative bloggers, who saw the remarks attributed to Mr. Jordan as evidence of a liberal bias of the big American news media.

"I think he was attacked because of what he represented as much as what he said," said David Gergen, who moderated the panel at Davos and who has served in the White House for administrations of both parties. He said he was troubled by the attacks on Mr. Jordan and said that his resignation was a mark of the increasing degree to which the news media were being drawn into the nation's culture wars.

While over the years Mr. Jordan had helped vault CNN to some of its most celebrated triumphs - it was largely through his diplomatic efforts that CNN was able to broadcast the first live footage from the first Gulf War, in 1991 - he also drew criticism. In one case, he wrote an article for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times in April 2003, saying that CNN had essentially suppressed news of brutalities so the network could maintain access and protect its people in Iraq.

Through the latest uproar, the substance of Mr. Jordan's initial assertion about the military targeting journalists was largely lost. Those who worked closely with Mr. Jordan at CNN, as well as on behalf of other news organizations, said he was aggressive and passionate about making life safer for journalists working in Iraq.

Ann Cooper, executive director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that 36 journalists, plus 18 translators who worked for journalists, had been killed in Iraq since 2003. Of those 54, she said, at least nine died as a result of American fire.

"From our standpoint, journalists are not being targeted by the U.S. military in Iraq," Ms. Cooper said. "But there certainly are cases where an atmosphere of what, at best, you can call indifference has led to deaths and other problems for journalists."

As an example, Ms. Cooper cited the shelling by American troops of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, well known as the residence of journalists, in April 2003, killing two journalists. .

But the notion that journalists are "targeted" by the military did not first emerge with Mr. Jordan at Davos. Nik Gowing, a presenter, or anchor, for the BBC, has advanced the theory in writings and speeches that because the media can now convey instantaneously what is happening in a war zone, military commanders may find journalists a hindrance. The Pentagon has dismissed such theories.

In any case, on Feb. 2, Rebecca MacKinnon, who worked under Mr. Jordan when she was a producer and bureau chief at CNN, and organized the blog from Davos, contacted him after seeing that conservative blogs had picked up on his remarks.

"I e-mailed him and said the same people who were after Rather appear to be after you," said Ms. MacKinnon, now a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

Later that evening, she posted a response from Mr. Jordan, who wrote that on the panel he had meant to say that when journalists are aimed at and shot, as opposed to being killed by wayward bombs, "such a killing is a tragic case of mistaken identity, not a case of 'collateral damage.' "

At about the same time, CNN became aware that trouble was brewing online, and in the wake of Mr. Rather's downfall, it tried to try to head off the storm. When he returned to Florida on Feb. 2 from the conference, Mr. Abovitz said he had messages from Mr. Jordan and from CNN. He sent an inquiry back to CNN but said he did not get a response.

Also that day, CNN's public information division sent an unsolicited e-mail message to many of those who were writing about the controversy. Someone at CNN apparently posted the same statement on several blogs.

The message, which was unsigned, read: "Many blogs have taken Mr. Jordan's remarks out of context. Eason Jordan does not believe the U.S. military is trying to kill journalists. Mr. Jordan simply pointed out the facts: While the majority of journalists killed in Iraq have been slain at the hands of insurgents, the Pentagon has also noted that the U.S. military on occasion has killed people who turned out to be journalists. The Pentagon has apologized for those actions."

Christa Robinson, senior vice president for public relations for CNN, said that CNN sent the statement to those who sent e-mail messages to CNN or had written about Mr. Jordan online. Asked if the network was consciously seeking to head off the protracted criticism that devoured Mr. Rather last fall, Ms. Robinson said that the network was acknowledging the speed with which news now travels.

Mr. Morrissey of Captain's Quarters said he was surprised to receive the message. "I'm sure that what they were trying to do was get people to stop talking about it," he said.

The only way for the network to really clear up the controversy, he and others said, would have been to push for the release of the videotape of Mr. Jordan's remarks.

Ms. Robinson of CNN said that the network had no transcript of the session or a videotape because the conference organizers said that they considered the session off the record. She said that the content of Mr. Jordan's remarks was not in dispute, but that assertion has not satisfied those critics on the Internet who contend Mr. Jordan and CNN have something to hide.

The online attack of Mr. Jordan, particularly among conservative commentators, appeared to gain momentum when they were seized on by other conservative outlets. A report on the National Review Web site was followed by editorials in The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as by a column in The New York Post by Michelle Malkin (a contributor for Fox News, CNN's rival).

Mr. Abovitz, who started it all, said he hoped bloggers could develop loftier goals than destroying people's careers. "If you're going to do this open-source journalism, it should have a higher purpose," he said. "At times it did seem like an angry mob, and an angry mob using high technology, that's not good."

originally published February 14, 2005