UN resident blogger takes on traditional media

UN resident blogger takes on traditional media
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First Published: Mon, Apr 30 2007. 10 24 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Apr 30 2007. 10 24 AM IST
United Nations: The daily press briefing was routine. Marie Okabe, a spokeswoman for the secretary general, read a five-minute update on Somalia, Darfur and the Security Council’s actions, and about 30 journalists quietly listened.
In the third row, Matthew Lee tapped away at his laptop and scribbled on two notepads with the intensity of a graduate student at thesis time. When Ms. Okabe asked for questions, Mr. Lee, the resident blogger of the UN corps, pounced, asking almost as many questions in 20 minutes as the other correspondents combined.
Mr. Lee, a well-known gadfly who often presses banks to revise their policies on mortgage loans to the poor, is the only blogger at the UN with media credentials, entitling him to free office space and access to briefings and press conferences. There had been a second accredited blogger, Pincas Jawetz, a 73-year-old retired energy policy consultant, but he was ejected last month on the grounds that he had distracted too many briefings with off-topic questions.
The UN is one of the only institutions of its size and importance that currently allow bloggers not affiliated with larger, more traditional media companies into the permanent press corps.
The Democrats and Republicans allowed bloggers into their 2004 conventions. But the question of whether bloggers should be considered credentialed journalists is a relatively new one at the UN, in part, it seems, because the foreign policy debates here are considered mind-numbing to many Americans.
“Bloggers in the US seem mostly concerned about domestic politics,” said Mr. Lee, one of about 200 full-time resident correspondents at the UN (another 1,500 have permanent credentials).
The day-to-day work of the UN, he said, involves passing “boring resolutions and delivering food. Nobody cares.”
Most of Ms. Okabe’s answers during a daily briefing made it into one of several daily posts on Mr. Lee’s website, innercitypress.com, which has covered everything from fire drills at the UN headquarters building to potential financial abuses at its agencies. He says that this site gets about 90,600 visitors a month. Another site he runs, innercitypress.org, which he calls “more openly advocacy,” gets 289,000 monthly visitors.
Mr. Lee is also well known in banking circles. This month, for instance, he took a break from his foreign affairs duties to attend a Citigroup shareholder meeting.
He established Inner City Press in 1987 as a print newsletter and turned his attention to the UN in late 2005. Today, Inner City Press operates as both an online nonprofit organization and as a Web site with the motto “investigative reporting from the inner city to Wall Street to the UN.”
Mr. Lee draws a distinction between his investigations at the UN and the criticism the institution faces from right-wing bloggers. “I end up getting a lot of dirt, not because I’m a right-winger, just because I write about the agencies,” said Mr. Lee, 41, who says he regularly works 13-hour days and lives on the money from several fellowships he won a few years ago.
Stéphane Dujarric, who was a chief spokesman for former Secretary General Kofi Annan, is now working for the department that oversees media accreditation at the UN. He said that guidelines for bloggers are a work in progress. The goal is to balance concerns about openness, security and professional standards with growing interest from online journalists, he said.
“New media is definitely a challenge to all organizations who accredit journalists, and I think we’re doing well in meeting that challenge,” Mr. Dujarric said. “Our priority is to make sure we provide an environment that is as open to journalists doing their work, as much as possible.”
For people without credentials — journalists or citizens — the UN posts transcripts and live webcasts on its site. “We’re trying to make information about the UN as accessible as possible,” Mr. Dujarric said.
The debate over who should gain access to the inner sanctum came to a head last month when Mr. Jawetz, who follows sustainable development for his website called SustainabiliTank.info, did not have his accreditation renewed. The UN department of public information cited his website’s lack of “a substantial amount of original news content” as well as complaints from other reporters that Mr. Jawetz’s questions were “more consistent with that of a nongovernmental organization advocate.”
On 29 March, his last day at the noon briefing, Mr. Jawetz created a scene by using the question period to read a letter informing him that his renewal request had been declined.
“I’m not covering everything, I’m writing about what is important,” said Mr. Jawetz, who said in an interview that his site published impartial journalism, not advocacy.
And in the more distant blogosphere, the UN is a favorite punching bag for many political blogs like littlegreenfootballs.com.
“Bloggers, serious ones, do contribute to the spread of information,” said Tuyet Nguyen, a correspondent for the German press service DPA and president of the UN Correspondents Association. He said of Mr. Lee: “I don’t see any difference in what he’s doing and what we are doing.”
Mr. Lee is a bit like a bull in the carefully diplomatic china shop of the UN press corps. He has broken a few stories and irritated more than one senior official. He has printed gossip, rumours and what several officials called lies, and was once called a “jerk” by Mark Malloch Brown, the deputy secretary-general under Kofi Annan.
But he seems to have earned the respect of his colleagues: in December, he was elected to the executive committee of the UN Correspondents Association.
“I know my place; it’s a supplement, it’s a sidebar on issues that everyone else cares about,” Mr. Lee said.
He said that he can devote his time — and web space — to issues often overlooked by larger media. “It’s not like newsprint costs are going to kill me,” he said.
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First Published: Mon, Apr 30 2007. 10 24 AM IST
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