The ambush of Craig Newmark

When we look around and try to figure out why people don’t trust us (the press) anymore, the first stop we need to make is the mirror. There’s no conspiracy. By our own actions and behaviors, we have made it nigh onto impossible for people to trust us. Witness the case of Craig Newmark and CNN.

Craig NewmarkI first met Craig Newmark in San Francisco in 2005. The occasion was a blog meet-up hosted by KRON-TV. Craig is “the Craig” of Craigslist, the free classifieds juggernaut that has had much to do with the financial woes of the newspaper industry. We spent time talking and have exchanged a few emails since, but I know enough of Craig to appreciate the gentle, self-effacing nature of his persona. He’s genuinely a nice guy, and I’ll admit an up-front bias about him.

Craig Newmark has very little to do with the operation of Craigslist, having hired a CEO, Jim Buckmaster, who has been running the company for the last ten years. Craig is on the board (of course) and hangs around in customer service, because — and again, this is his nature — he genuinely likes people and being in a position to help. He has used the resources given him in philanthropy, and not just because he can. This is simply Craig Newmark.

So it was with interest this week that I’ve read of an ambush interview by CNN’s Amber Lyon that Craig endured concerning the salacious story of people advertising for sex on Craigslist. There’s really nothing new about the story itself, but Ms. Lyon turned it into an “investigation” and cornered Craig after a speech in Washington on veteran’s affairs, one of his causes. Ambushing Craig Newmark is a little like deer-spotting, it shouldn’t be allowed, because it’s too easy.

She pummeled him with questions about why Craigslist supports sex slavery and child rapists. He froze. I’m not surprised, knowing Craig.

This week, he wrote about what the experience was like, and it’s a pretty insightful view of how it feels to have a camera stuck in your face.

As old time craigslisters know, I’m a hard-wired nerd with symptoms I’m told border on Asperger’s Syndrome. That means I’m too trusting, often socially inept, have difficulty shifting focus, and frequently am unsure what to do in situations others handle easily. And I don’t have a normal person’s ability to sense when someone might be looking to take advantage of these shortcomings…

…If Amber had done her homework, she would have known ambushing me with questions I am not qualified to answer, or even the right person to ask, would not get CNN’s viewers the accurate information they deserve.

So I should have said, “Hey, thanks, but Jim’s the guy your viewers should hear from.” Instead, I froze and looked clueless, and, worse than that, uncaring. Clueless I definitely am sometimes, but not uncaring…

…Amber, CNN, and others are depicting Jim and I as profiteers oblivious to the welfare of women and children. Anyone that’s followed us over all these years knows that’s not at all what we’re about. In reality, we’re both pretty obsessed with trying to make the world a better place, and neither have much interest in possessions or fancy lifestyles.

Ms. Lyon, meanwhile, has been bragging about the event as if she’d scored some major scoop. Here’s what her bio says on the matter:

Lyon also investigated the sex trafficking of minors on Craigslist. In a CNN exclusive, Lyon brought her findings to the “Craig” in Craigslist, founder Craig Newmark. Her interview left Newmark speechless.

In the minds of everybody who knows Craig, myself included, and those who’ve been following this story via blogs and Twitter, Ms. Lyon’s purpose in ambushing Craig was self-promotion, hyperbole to position herself as hard-edged. She may honestly feel that she did a great thing here with her “investigation,” but the lesson for us to learn is that just because we feel that way doesn’t necessarily mean that our audience does.

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmeister later posted a blog entry of his own, taking Ms. Lyon and CNN to task. Apparently, she has now requested an interview with him.

You knew Craig was not in management or a company spokesperson, but setting CNN’s ethical code aside, you sidestepped company channels in favor of ambushing our semi-retired founder, complete with a misleading “set up” for your surprise questions. Now that CNN has aired your highly misleading piece dozens of times, mischaracterizing your stunt as a serious interview on this subject, and you’ve updated your “bio” to showcase this rare jewel of investigative journalism, you’re ready to try actually interviewing the company itself on this subject.

There is a class of “journalists” known for gratuitously trashing respected organizations and individuals, ignoring readily available facts in favor of rank sensationalism and self-promotion. They work for tabloid media. Your stunt has veteran news pros we know recoiling in journalistic horror, some of them chalking it up to a decline in CNN’s standards, which is unfortunate.

Seeing how you’ve pinned your career hopes on butchering this story, I’ll have to pass.

The decline in press trust in the U.S. began in 1976, after Watergate. I’ve said many times that the thirst to be the next Woodward and Bernstein has driven us to do some things of questionable ethics as we go about our daily chores, and this, perhaps more than anything else, has driven people away. Amber Lyon got exactly what she was seeking when she chose to ambush Craig Newmark, and it had nothing to do with reporting.

Shame on us.

(Originally published in this week’s AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

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