Contradiction in the 'Times'

Will Microsoft Have to Break Up? Reporter says 'Yes,' Then 'No'

Question: When is a newspaper correction not a correction? Answer:

When the underlying premise of the story's lead has to be restated. Case in point: In his A-1 story in 'The New York Times' November 10, reporter Joel Brinkley gave the impression that a group of state attorneys general believe they will have to break up Microsoft in order to remedy its monopoly power. One week later, in a front-page story for the business section, Brinkley backpedaled, declaring such a consensus nonexistent.

The original story, headlined "Prosecutors Seeking to Break the Grip of Windows System," came in the wake of the November 5 preliminary ruling in which a judge found that Microsoft has achieved a monopoly in computer operating systems. Brinkley discussed the next step for the 19 state attorneys general who brought the case, which is to decide on the appropriate remedy for the company's gargantuan monopoly.

Although several remedies are under discussion, Brinkley led with the bold statement "The state and federal officials prosecuting the Microsoft antitrust case now say that their goal . . . will be to break the company's monopoly in personal computer operating systems, or limit its ability to wield such monopoly power." (Emphasis added.)

The main support for the "break up" thesis was a quote from New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who claimed, "It's an overwhelming opinion now that [the remedy] has to address [Microsoft's] monopoly in operating systems." (Note: there is no mention of a breakup in the preceding quote.) Another supporting quote came from a law professor who said that if there has been a "significant" abuse of power, "then the appropriate remedy is to break up the monopoly." The only named source to express dissent was California attorney general Bill Lockyer, who suggested it might be possible to leave Microsoft's current structure intact. (The first reference to Lockyer appears to have been deleted. Hasty editing?)

With a total of 19 attorneys general working on the case, it's no surprise there were other dissenters. On November 10, the same day Brinkley's consensus-driving piece appeared, Iowa attorney general Tom Miller issued a press release refuting the Times story in no uncertain terms. "The States have reached no consensus about the best remedies we might seek in the Microsoft case," the press release began, pointing out that the AGs are "in no rush to narrow our options." Miller is the head of a working group whose members converse frequently about developments in the case.

Miller's spokesperson, Bob Brammer, told the Voice that while his boss's statement was not "specifically" a response to the Times, "We thought there were some media reports that might be interpreted in a way that didn't reflect the thinking of the states. It was an occasion where we felt it was important to keep the waters calm and not let the speculation run away."

Lo and behold, Miller brought the speculation under control. In Brinkley's follow-up story on November 17, Miller was quoted high up, in the second graf, handicapping the odds that a consensus will ever be reached at only "something better than 50-50." This time around, Brinkley spelled out all the obstacles to a consensus, including the complexity of the issues, the diverse politics of the players, and the tension between the state AGs and the Justice Department lawyers who will join in the decision.

The Times writer even went so far as to give Miller the last word, quoting the Iowa AG's prediction that the states and Justice may wind up submitting two separate recommendations for a remedy.

Brinkley sticks by his stories and does not consider them contradictory. He says the first piece reported the news that the AGs had reached a consensus that the monopoly must be dealt with in some way, while the second reported that they had not reached a consensus on the actual remedy. Brinkley had no comment on the impact of Miller's press release on his reporting.


'Mother Jones' Gets Her Groove Back

image Mother Jones editor in chief Roger Cohn has found "exactly what I wanted" in his new investigative editor Eric Bates—someone who is "experienced in editing and writing investigative journalism" and who "knows how to tell a story."

During his seven years as editor of Southern Exposure, a magazine based in Durham, North Carolina, Bates oversaw an investigation of the poultry industry that won a 1990 National Magazine Award, as well as a "poverty industry" exposé that was a National Magazine Award finalist. "When I read those packages, I was struck by how uniformly well-done they were," says Cohn. Plus, "Eric was using writers who were not major national writers, yet he was able to put it all together with a minuscule budget." Both Southern Exposure and Mother Jones are run by nonprofits.

Since leaving Southern Exposure, Bates has written for DoubleTake, The Nation, and Mother Jones, while working as a staff writer at The Independent, an alternative weekly based in Durham. When Cohn launched his search, he says, "Several New York editors told me, 'Boy, if you could ever convince Eric Bates to leave North Carolina, he'd be a great catch.' "

By last week, Bates was packing. He says he is impressed with Cohn's commitment to investigative reporting, which requires not just money, but time, "the most essential resource" for the kinds of writers whose work requires waiting for documents to arrive and getting to know entire communities. And he's already giving plenty of his own time: Since he was hired, Bates has been on the phone with Cohn six times a day, brainstorming and assigning ideas for the future. The next issue's cover story is on Vietnam.

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