Do the big guys need more help to fight the media? Steven Brill's online crusade to ...

Do the big guys need more help to fight the media? Steven Brill's online crusade to assist those who've been unfairly slated in the media is ethically sound. But what if the story hasn't been written yet? Claire Atkinson reports.

Do the big guys need more help to fight the media? Steven Brill's online crusade to assist those who've been unfairly slated in the media is ethically sound. But what if the story hasn't been written yet? Claire Atkinson reports.

Ford's PR department was the first to take advantage of a new online media watchdog set up by self-appointed media arbiter, Steven Brill. But the use of the site by the automobile manufacturer demonstrates only too well some of the practical flaws in Brill's ethically-sound concept.

There is no doubt that having Ford as the first company to participate is good publicity for the newly established complaint board, which is being billed as America's first online media ombudsman. Brill knows his publicity.

But what does it tell us about the site? The stated aim of the board is to give those who've been 'unfairly slammed in the media' the opportunity to air their side of the story. But in the case of Ford the story has not even been written yet.

Ford is responding to - or rather executing a pre-emptive strike against - a story, which is yet to be broadcast on NBC's current affairs show Dateline.

Global news manager at Ford, James Cain, says: 'I used the complaint board because I had great interest in seeing Ford's position unedited.

Dateline's claims were so outrageous we really felt we had to have a forceful response, and it didn't bother us to make that response public.'

Cain goes on to describe the complaint board as 'fabulous', adding that it is a great way to shed light on the heavy reliance by TV news organizations on complainants' stories.

Of course he thinks it's fabulous - it has given him the perfect opportunity to defuse a TV bomb which might have exploded in his face. But journalists, although far from perfect, are one of the most important bastions of accountability. And, while corporations should always be given the right to reply to a story, it is a slightly strange world in which a company can try to rubbish a story before it has even been printed or broadcast.

Big corporations already have many weapons in their armories and their PR agencies' armories to fend off investigative journalism - do they really need another?

It is also worth asking whether Ford should have put its point on the show? Cain doesn't think so. He says it was good to have a neutral third party monitoring the process.

Content editorial director Eric Effron says: 'The whole point is to let disputes which would play out privately, play out publicly. There is always a lot of back and forth between the subject and the media. It's interesting to see a pre-emptive move and the processes that may influence journalists.'

But it could have been played out publicly, according to NBC, which offered Ford the right to reply. Instead it is aired on the complaints board, published exclusively on AOL.

Other eager participants in the complaints board seem to demonstrate a more typical use of a media ombudsman.

One complaint about a TV news show comes from the Chief of Police in Naperville, Illinois. David Dial claims that CBS journalists failed to be as accountable as they held their interviewees. He says CBS production 60 Minutes misreported that police officers in the town had been indicted as a result of an investigation into the murder of a young girl. According to the police chief, the investigation had involved officers in another town.

Though NBC is still to respond to Ford, other journalists have been keen to defend their articles. A complaint about a story in New York magazine about the state of an animal shelter was accompanied by a response from writer Elizabeth Hess, who says that she stands behind every word.

So what role will the Brill organization play in the complaints board, given that it is a media entity itself? It has appointed its own regulator Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

The site producers will also solicit the other side of every complaint, and then if the story is interesting enough, writers from the magazine will take up the case to find out the facts. Will this lead to more 'balanced' publicity for firms who may deserve to be dragged over the coals for their actions?

Though the board will carry details of complaints to their conclusion, the Brill staff will not offer adjudication on disputes. 'We are not advocates for these people,' says executive editor Amy Bernstein.

Effron, however, says the board may well evolve into a true mediation.

But before that can happen, Mr Brill needs to be sure he is driving up journalistic standards, and not undermining good journalism.

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