Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Washington Post Reacts to Wal-Mart Blogger Story

The blogosphere has been unimpressed with Michael Barbaro’s recent piece in the New York Times revealing the supposedly sinister fact that Wal-Mart PR people have been cultivating bloggers in an attempt to get favorable coverage for the retail giant.

But that might be expected. Bloggers are a bit clannish, and might view the story as an attack on the blogosphere — which it was.

But Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post has weighed in, and he is no more impressed than the bloggers. He reviews blogger response at length, but the following is his take:
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.
Actually, it’s not in dispute. A few have done this, but most haven’t. Rather, we bloggers have used the Wal-Mart material when we happened to agree with it and find it interesting. With only a very few exceptions, we have simply worked from sources that Wal-Mart PR guy Marshall Manson supplied, crafting our own stories.

(A few bloggers have indeed cut and pasted Manson’s material. This is bad journalism, but it’s no different from a little rural weekly paper running press releases unedited. It’s not news.)

One aspect of Kurtz’ story is particularly interesting, however.
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.

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.)
We in fact broke the story, and other bloggers followed us, apparently because Manson had cued them in to the fact that we had done so.

We did this not out of any motive to “pre-empt” anybody (although Manson, being a saavy PR guy, doubtless knew that was the effect), but simply to scoop the Times.

Does this create a perverse incentive for reporters “trying to be fair?”

Maybe. But Barbaro doesn’t have a reputation of “trying to be fair” to Wal-Mart, and this had all the earmarks of a hit piece.

But there is one thing that Kurtz and Barbaro and all the rest of the mainstream media need to know: you are not special.

What Wal-Mart does is a matter of public importance. But what the New York Times or the Washington Post does is a matter of public importance. Expect us bloggers to jump on whatever we think newsworthy. And that might be something that you are doing.


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