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Web Critics Take Aim at Old-Style Publishers

Call it the democratization of the rarified world of media criticism. In much the same way the Internet has opened the world of publishing to the masses, it is now opening avenues for criticism of old-style publishers.

A small but growing contingent of amateur and semi-professional media critics are taking aim at newspapers and periodicals, picking up where those papers' ombudsmen (if they have them) leave off.

One of the first to appear was SmarterTimes.com, a site that painstakingly points out flaws in The New York Times. Since then, similar sights have cropped up that skewer the Los Angeles Times (LAExaminer.com) and the San Francisco Chronicle (Chronwatch.com).

Even the venerable Harper's Weekly isn't immune and is subjected to monthly ridicule on the so-called Smarter Harper's Index page

In a tone that is typical of the genre, SmarterTimes, which dates back to June 2000, recently took aim at a lead article in the paper that characterized the "harsh Israeli reprisals" in the Mideast fighting as having "forced the administration to re-examine its strong support for Mr. Sharon's tough policies." 

"Oh, so now it is the opinion of The New York Times news department that the Israeli reprisals have been harsh and that Prime Minister Sharon's policies have been tough," wrote SmarterTimes editor and founder, Ira Stoll. "So much for the newspaper's pretense of neutrality in the debate ..." 

The sites are generally the work of one or two people, some of whom have journalism experience and some who don't. Stoll, 29 — a former reporter at the Forward and the Los Angeles Times — is now managing editor of the forthcoming broadsheet, The New York Sun

Stoll, who sends out a daily e-mail summary of his critique to some 6,600 subscribers, takes a scholarly approach, citing spelling and grammar mistakes, factual errors and stories that he feels omit the conservative point of view. 

"I started SmarterTimes.com to illuminate for people who viewed The New York Times as infallible wisdom from on high that the paper had flaws," he said. Stoll had a more personal reason for wanting to spear the Times, too. 

"At the Forward, I was often frustrated that I would write a story and then weeks or even months later, the Times would run it without giving me credit — sometimes getting some of the basic facts wrong or leaving out points of view," he said. 

These critics' critics characterize them as disgruntled readers who need an outlet for their rants. That's how San Francisco Chronicle editors see the 71-year-old Webmaster of ChronWatch, retired businessman Jim Sparkman. 

"I think this guy has a bit of an ax to grind," said Chronicle associate managing editor Kenn Altine. "Do I think he's right on his points? No. Do I think he has the right to say them? Absolutely. Hooray for the free press." 

Sparkman doesn't refute the claim that his agenda is partly political. 

"I don't see anything wrong with that, " Sparkman said of his "distinctly conservative" stance. "I certainly present a political point of view, but what I'm after is to force the Chronicle to provide more balance." 

Sparkman, a 25-year Chronicle reader, started feeling recently that its coverage had become too slanted to the left politically. He sent several e-mails, some of which were answered and some that weren't, he said. 

"I got started out of personal frustration," Sparkman said. "I was getting ignored." 

In last Thursday's ChronWatch, Sparkman highlighted recent mistakes the paper made in quoting Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, which it admitted to in its editorial pages. 

"Were they so eager to paint Wolfowitz as a 'hard hawk' that they let their bias overwhelm their judgment?" he asked on his Web page. 

Altine, who scoffs at the notion that the Chronicle is left-leaning, said the paper has no problem running corrections — but only when they're warranted, not just because people like Sparkman don't like something in the paper. 

"We take comments from our readers and critics very seriously," he said. "That doesn't mean that every time they say we're wrong, we're wrong. If corrections need to be made, we make them." 

Those behind the media-bashing sites say they're not sure what impact their commentary might be having. 

"It's hard to say whether you're opening people's eyes or preaching to the converted," Stoll said. 

The New York Times didn't return phone calls for this story, but Stoll said its staffers regularly respond to his work by phone and e-mail. Some even took him to lunch once, he said. He declined to reveal what they said about the site. 

"The Times is an impressive newspaper, and it's certainly been successful," Stoll said. "I hope they take [my criticism] in that friendly spirit."