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The Rise Of The Online Rebuttal — And How It's Making Waves In Print


It was not exactly a request that prompted the British tabloid the Daily Mail to take down one of its stories last week. It was an online rebuttal from George Clooney. The actor, writing in the pages of USA Today, issued a scathing response to the Mail's reporting about his upcoming marriage. The Daily Mail apologized, and the story disappeared from the web. In yet another rebuttal, Clooney has now rejected that apology. It's one of several examples lately of the rise of the digital rebuttal, and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now to talk more about it. And, David, we've seen several examples of this kind of thing lately, but let's get into it with the Clooney example. Explain what he was upset about.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, he was outraged at the Mail online, and then the Daily Mail, in the slightly shorter version, had reported that his future mother-in-law was opposed for religious reasons because she is, they reported, of Druze descent - it's an offshoot of Islam - the idea that her daughter was going to marry somebody outside the faith. As George Clooney wrote, she is not of Druze descent. She hadn't been back to her native Beirut to object in talking with family members and friends, and she hadn't raised objections to the marriage at all, according to Clooney. The forcefulness of his statement and the fact that people of course across the Atlantic Ocean can read immediately what he has to say online meant the Daily Mail responded quite quickly and quite swiftly even if not in a way that fully satisfied Clooney.

CORNISH: Then on the other end of the news spectrum, you have Wal-Mart's reaction to a tough New York Times column about its practices. What made Wal-Mart's reaction stand out?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, its format was pretty impressive. It was posted on Wal-Mart's website by the vice president for corporate communications, a guy named David Tovar. But it's written as though it's an internal memo. It says - in handwritten scrawl, it says, Tim, thanks for sharing your first draft; below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn't get published. Hope this helps. And then it goes through the column and writes in the margins helpful links to other sources of information that might tend to rebut some of the columnist's, Tim Egan, assertions in there - scoring a few points along they way, but offering a puckish and humorous way of doing so. I think it might well appeal to a lot of people a lot more than some sternly worded release sent out from a corporate headquarters.

CORNISH: Right, very much in the language of the Internet, as is this another example. The Israeli ambassador took to BuzzFeed to offer a rebuttal to The New York Times, in this case an editorial, but did it in a classic BuzzFeed fashion, of course, kind of a list. But why BuzzFeed? Help us understand this.

FOLKENFLIK: Absolutely, and, you know, let me just read the headline to give listeners a flavor; it's "5 Reasons Why The New York Times Editorial Today Is An Embarrassment To Journalism" - classic BuzzFeed headline. There are a couple of opinions and assertions here, but also some facts. Forcefully rebutted, The New York Times indeed posted a correction to the editorial about a couple elements. And this is a way that the Israeli ambassador can use BuzzFeed not as a journalistic outfit, but as a social media platform. And that is, it can post, as a community member for BuzzFeed, its own kind of op-ed column rather than just giving an interview. For younger Americans, an approach like this posted on BuzzFeed might appeal to them a lot more than appearing on traditional television outlets.

CORNISH: David, you know, whether it's a celebrity or a major corporation or a country, there's always been a big PR mission to run defense. What's the significance of the digital rebuttal?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you're seeing in each of these three examples three different ways the instantaneous of the digital age allows for rebuttals and allows for people who feel they have been wronged or misrepresented to forcefully answer in their own voice and not simply lodge an objection with the offending institution and hope that that journalistic outfit responds and not simply running a short letter to the editor or a quiet correction - but that attention must be paid. And I think people are deftly taking advantage of both older news organizations like USA Today and newer social media platforms to make that happen.

CORNISH: That's NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik. David, thank you.



You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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