What the press doesn’t want to tell you about Kaycee

Dan Bowman forwarded me a string of e-mail yesterday that raised a number of questions about the press. Apparently there is at least one reporter trying to find out how many people gave gifts to “Kaycee,” and that’s raising some concerns. Why? And why does the reporter want names and phone numbers? And how do you know if the guy’s legit or if he’s making some kind of sucker list?
Being a former reporter myself, Dan solicited my opinion. Maybe he figured a former reporter would recognize one of his own. And I do.

One concern was the reporter’s apparent use of a free e-mail address. This doesn’t cause me any great concern. Not all newspapers have a mail server because not every newspaper can afford to pay a mail administrator–or maybe they’re just not willing to justify keeping a full-time IT guy on hand who’d make more than the editor in chief. Plus there’s the portability issue–use a free, Web-based mail service, and you can read your mail from anywhere with Web access. No need to mess with VPNs or direct dialins or any of that nastiness.

Another concern is why does the reporter want a phone number. Practicality is one issue; a five-minute phone conversation can glean far more information than a mail conversation that takes all day. And the reporter probably wants to hear your voice; the sound of your voice tells a lot. The reporter can’t print that information, usually, but that gut feeling provides valuable guidance. Plus the reporter needs to verify that you really exist, which is something that anyone who had any contact with “Kaycee” will understand.

But if the reporter were any good, he’d be able to track you down, right? You bet he could. But that’s ruder than establishing contact via e-mail. You want the source to be as comfortable as possible. Plus it takes time to do that. In something like this, you’ll cast a wide net as painlessly as possible. If I were writing this story, my very first step would be to go to Weblogs.com, do a search on “Kaycee,” and when I find sites that mention her name a lot, I’d read the posts to get an idea of whether there was any relationship, and if I find any indication, e-mail that person. I may e-mail 100 people. But it only takes three sources to make a story.

Will the reporter honor your wishes, like not printing your full name, or your real name? Quite possibly. I know MSNBC’s Bob Sullivan knew Julie Fullbright’s identity. (Bob taught one of my journalism classes way back when, back when he was a grad student at the University of Missouri. I e-mailed him after his story hit the Web.) He didn’t publish her name–he said her identity couldn’t be confirmed at press time. A white lie? Kind of. But I know Bob didn’t knock on Julie’s door and confirm it. I don’t know whether he called her on the phone and asked if the pictures were her yet still chose to say her identity was unconfirmed. Bob said he wanted to protect her privacy, and knowing Bob, I take him at his word on that. If this was going to turn into a three-ring circus in the press, Bob didn’t want to be the ringmaster. Once her identity became common knowledge, you started seeing her mentioned by name in the news too, and not just on the Weblogging sites.

Chances are very good that the reporter(s) will talk to dozens of people and probably run the best quotes he gets from some of them. For example, I found a nugget in one of Dan Bowman’s messages: “Shelley would really like to know who ate her cookies.” Yes, on one level that’s funny. But baking cookies for someone is a fairly universal act of love, and just about all of us–even baking-challenged superbachelors–can understand the feeling of betrayal when you bake up a batch of cookies and send them to someone, then find out they never got to that person. And if that person didn’t exist at all, it hurts even more.

If you feel like you should give the reporter a piece of information but don’t want to be quoted, use the phrase “off the record.” Most reporters honor that. If you can give them someone else who’ll corroborate what you say, the reporter is even more likely to honor it. Even if that someone else wants to remain anonymous, once three people say something, a reporter can pretty much count it as fact. And since there is some danger of retribution, a reporter will honor that. Most reporters have a soft spot in their hearts for people in danger.

I know you’re nervous about talking about this with a reporter, because I was a crime reporter. Being taken for money is one thing. People don’t like to talk about that because they don’t like to think of themselves as suckers. I know that. Any reporter you’re likely to talk to knows that. But being taken for love is entirely different. People are far less likely to talk about that. Any reporter you’re likely to talk to knows that too. All too well. He or she isn’t likely to do anything to hack you off when good sources are hard to find.

Why is the press taking this angle? Well, the root word of the word “news” is “new.” This is a very old story by news standards. This is the only angle left to take, and the national media has probably stopped caring. If it turns out that more than $1,000,000 worth of gifts were sent to Kaycee, then it’ll become a national story again. If a few hundred people sent postcards and cookies and trinkets, I doubt you’ll hear about it anywhere but in Kansas and Oklahoma newspapers. But in rural Kansas and Oklahoma, anything new that comes about in this case is news.

Why can’t the reporter just read your Weblog? There’s a decent chance s/he already has. But the reporter will want to know how you feel about this now. (That “new” thing again.) And no one wants to print exactly the same quote some other paper did. If you interview the person yourself, your chances of having verbatim quotes lessen.

Is the reporter in cahoots with the FBI or local law enforcement agencies? Probably not. That would be a conflict of interest. It crosses the boundary between reporting news and creating news.

And how can you tell if a reporter is legit? Do a Web search on the reporter’s name. Chances are it’ll show up somewhere. I did a Google search on the reporter’s name in this case, and the first hit had his name, his employer’s name, his editor’s name, and his newspaper’s phone number. If worse came to worse, I could call that number and ask for him. If he’s not there, you can ask whoever answers the phone if the reporter is working on a story along those lines. There’s no guarantee that person will know, but reporters do talk to one another, and future stories do come up in newsroom meetings.

Hopefully that helps people see this thing from a reporter’s perspective. And I suspect that’s probably the last I’ll talk about Kaycee here–the story seems to be losing momentum and people seem to be moving on. And that’s a good thing.

Integrity and fiction on the Web

I had thoughts that I thought best not shared, but then I read Frank McPherson’s excellent take on the hoax, so maybe I have something more to share after all. I’d really rather let the topic die, but since it appears there are still things for us to learn, let’s learn. Take consolation in that we can learn without me ever saying that name that begins with “K.” OK?
Here’s Frank:

For most of the last three or four months Dave Winer has been promoting the idea of amateur journalism. His point being that today’s mainstream media cannot be trusted, and does nothing but lie. Dave feels he can’t trust writers of BigPubs because they could be bought out by some person or company. He questions their integrity.

I’m trained as a professional journalist. I’ve seen the corruption from the inside. But I also know the source of the corruption, and that individuals inside can rise above it. I have classmates and former colleagues all over the place. CNet’s Troy Wolverton was in my New Media class. MSNBC’s Bob Sullivan taught my Editing class. The Associated Press’ David A. Lieb was my first editor in college. The AP’s Justin Hyde entrusted a newspaper column to me at the tender age of 19. My mentor as a columnist was Andrew Blasko, now a writer/pr contact/editor (strange combination) at The Heritage Foundation. USA Today’s Elizabeth McKinley was in my Editorial Writing class.

Those are just the people whose bylines I’ve seen recently, or who I remember for one reason or another.

I trust these people. I don’t always agree with them. I trust their ability to get the facts straight, partly because some of them were among the people who helped me learn to get the facts straight, and all of them learned to get the facts straight from the same people I did. Plus I spent a lot of time with them. I know they have integrity because I saw it. Not only do I trust them to get the story straight, but I wouldn’t think twice about tossing my car keys to any of them.

I also believe in amateur journalism. As far as I’m concerned, Mike Royko was the greatest journalist of all time. You know how Royko learned journalism? He went to the Chicago Public Library, grabbed every book on journalism and newswriting he could find, and spent a weekend reading them. He learned the principles and ethics of journalism, combined that with a God-given knack for writing that he may or may not have realized he had, and became a legend.

The key word Frank McPherson brought up is integrity. The individuals I mentioned have integrity. The National Enquirer lacks integrity. NBC’s Dateline lacks integrity. Debbie Swenson lacks integrity. Corporations are inherently no more and no less capable of integrity than individuals.

But corporations may have a slight edge in ability to maintain their integrity, because of accountability. Corporations, being made up of individuals, have a certain amount of accountability built in. Individuals can get accountability or they can reject it. I know if I say something that makes people wonder if I’ve been smoking crack, Dan Bowman or Dustin Cook or Pete Moore or a host of others will call me on it. They’ll chime in with their twenty bucks’ worth (that’s the price most people put on my words, and theirs should be worth what mine are), the truth will come out, and we’ll all be the better for it.

And that doesn’t just apply to my writing. When I teach a Bible study, there are usually two masters’ students among the audience. Those guys are slumming. While there are many preachers who have less formal training than I have, Matt and John know far more than I do. I have no idea what they can learn from me. But I appreciate them being there, because if I’m wrong, I know they’ll speak up, and they know I expect them to.

Integrity and accountability aren’t so much something you get so much as they are something you live. And yes, you should look for them, and if someone appears to lack them, then no, you shouldn’t trust them, not even for the sports scores. Don’t give them the eyeballs the advertisers look for.

Now, Frank brought up Bo Leuf, who brought up the question of fiction. Bo observed that when fiction writing first appears in a new medium, it looks like fact, and outrages people. And some people still can’t tell the difference years later. Having lived next door to people who truly believed the X Files were real, I know this firsthand.

Personally, I love the idea of a fictional weblog. We’ve been trying for years to figure out ways to exploit the unique capabilities of the Internet, and the weblog lets us do that.

The idea hit me as I read the end of this Oklahoman article. “I think [Swenson] wanted to tell a story. But she should have written a book or something.” Those were the words of Julie Fullbright, the local hero who unknowingly gave her face to the fictional character whose name I promised not to mention. That’s the kind of quotable quote a journalist lives for. I read those words just before I left work for the day, and I’ve been thinking about them all night.

I thought she was right then, and I think she’s still right now.

Now, having written a book, and having fallen victim to a publisher’s whims, I know what it’s like to try to write a book. I know what it’s like to try to get someone to publish it. And I know what it’s like to try to get someone to buy it. The difficulty increases with each step of that wretched process.

So, I’m sitting here with a novel about half-written, and no desire to have anything to do with a publisher until I’ve managed to acquire some clout. Now I don’t know for sure what having clout feels like, but I’m pretty sure I’ll know it when I feel it. But I can set up another weblog. I’m comfortable with that. I can give it the following subhead: “A work of fiction by David L. Farquhar.” The novel occurs in the past. That makes life easy. I just put it on its own server, with the clock set back. When today’s entry is dated 1992 or whenever, that makes it look a whole lot more like fiction.

Besides, Murel, my cubicle neighbor, has been telling me for months that I’d end up writing my novel in pieces here and one day I’d just have to tie it all together. I think he was on to something.

I won’t make any money, but that’s OK. I didn’t make any money off the one and a half books I wrote either. At least this time I won’t go in there with that expectation. If something happens that makes it profitable down the road, fine. End aside.

The character can be no more compelling than the author. That was the problem I ran into when I initially wrote the novel. I was trying to write about a 19-year-old, but I wasn’t finished being 19 myself yet. I’m not certain that at 26 I have enough perspective. But I have more than I did then.

And yes, sometimes life is better than fiction. But fiction intertwined with life kicks royal booty. The best thing about The Great Gatsby is that Jay Gatsby’s fears and insecurities were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fears and insecurities. Jay Gatsby made his money by running drugstores that sold other stuff out the back room. F. Scott Fitzgerald made his money peddling words. But Jay Gatsby was all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s worst fears wrapped into a character. He was vulnerable and honest. Vulnerable and honest people are compelling. Heck, vulnerable and dishonest people can be compelling.

So do I launch another weblog? I’m severely tempted. This isn’t the time to do it. I need to get my server in order and start getting content migrated to this site from its predecessors and make sure everything’s working smoothly. That’ll take a while yet.

But I know the formula. I have the plot, and the plot’s captivated everyone I’ve tossed it out to. I have some characters, and they’re far more compelling than the characters in the 1994-95 draft because I’ve spent the past seven years getting to know them. A few pieces still have to come together. But I think I really want to try this experiment.

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