Interior challenges news report

It's like the Wild West on the Internet frontier, Interior Department Webmaster Stephen King says. Not surprisingly, the vast and relatively lawless terrain of the World Wide Web isn't without its rhetorical gunfights. Consider a recent skirmish between the department and The Washington Post. A Pos

It's like the Wild West on the Internet frontier, Interior Department Webmaster Stephen King says.Not surprisingly, the vast and relatively lawless terrain of the World Wide Web isn't without its rhetorical gunfights.

Consider a recent skirmish between the department and The Washington Post.

A Post reporter wrote a story June 2 about an American Indian who claimed that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had, through mismanagement or theft, deprived him of money he was due through the Indian trust funds.

After the story appeared, BIA launched a spirited defense of itself on the department's Web site. It also attacked the story, which bureau officials said was "flat wrong" in many of its assertions.

For about a week, a link to the material was displayed prominently on top of the department's main Web page, at www.doi.gov, which averages about 50,000 hits a day.

"We welcome responsible coverage of this important issue by the media, but this is an extraordinarily complex issue with a long history," Interior wrote. "Unfortunately, a great deal of the coverage of this issue has been devoid of substantive discussion about the origins of these complex problems or their solutions. Much of the coverage of Indian trust funds has focused on 'horror stories,' and many of these cases have proven to be misleading or outright distortions of the truth."

The Post article "illustrates the complexities of this issue and the perils of reporting without facts," the department wrote.

Such a direct response to a news story was not possible before the Internet. The only recourse was to write a letter to the editor, said Teresa Rusnak, administrative officer for the Interior secretary's Office of Communication.

"They can publish it or not publish it," she said. "And they edit the letters. And until they print it, all of the people who read the story assume it's true."

Aly Colon, a journalism ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said he sees nothing wrong with the department's use of the Internet to defend itself.

But he cautioned readers to keep in mind the prejudice that is inherent in such government postings and to consider the rigorous standards of fairness and accuracy that are—or at least should be—applied to stories in reputable newspapers.

Some of the people who read Interior's aggressive Internet-based defense were department employees from across the country, and several of them wrote e-mail messages to BIA spokesman Rex Hackler.

"I just wanted to let you know how much we in the field appreciate the highly professional and effective response to The Washington Post article 'Held in Trust, and in Limbo,' " wrote one BIA employee. "For too long, the BIA has failed to initiate and maintain a first-rate media effort with which to counter such inaccurate stories. Such stories, left unchallenged, become accepted truths not only by the general public, but in many cases, our Indian clientele."

Communicating with the public is the philosophical engine behind the department's vast Internet presence, King said.

From defending the department against media accounts to telling kayakers how high the water levels are in their favorite rivers, Interior Webmasters are "putting some reins" on the avalanche of material available on the Web and "making [information about Interior] as available to the American people as we can," King said.

The link to the attack against the Post is gone from the welcome page, but it can be accessed at another location in the site, at www.doi.gov/ news/ 990604.html.

The Post ran an edited letter to the editor written by Kevin Gover, the assistant secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs. A copy of the letter was included on the bureau's Web site.

The Post could not be reached for comment.

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