WASHINGTON – Not content to bank on traditional forms of media, the Department of Defense has turned to the Internet to get out its message.
Web surfers can actually listen to briefings live through the Web site, as well as selected interviews, and chat with senior officials in real time. Pentagon officials say they have finally figured how viable a tool the World Wide Web is, and now the public can truly benefit from the additional information, especially in this time of war.
"We're looking at a number of ways to tell the taxpayers and the American people and audiences all over the world what we're up to and the Web is just a part of that," said Navy Capt. Tim Taylor, who heads the Pentagon press office.
"When senior officials in the department make public statements, engage in news briefings or interviews, we really think that is important to make all of those part of the public record, online," he added.
The site is updated every day with new transcripts and press releases, which has paid off with an average 250,000 page views a day. By comparison, Foxnews.com averages more than 3.4 million page views per day.
To be fair, all government agencies are required to make public records available online under extended Freedom of Information laws passed in 1996, although putting transcripts and press releases and other public statements on the Web site is DoD's own doing.
Taylor said that hired contractors transcribe the briefings and collect transcripts from news outlets to post on the site.
The site has also become a critical source for fact checkers. Charging that a San Francisco Chronicle reporter had misquoted Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in a recent interview, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke fired off a letter to the editor which read: "For those who wish to read what Wolfowitz actually said, the transcript … is on the Department of Defense Website, www.defenselink.mil."
But don't expect to read about anything that is not cleared for public consumption, or any information that might make the Pentagon look bad. Even Taylor admits that readers should take www.defenselink.mil for what it is – an official government Web site.
"We're just trying to take advantage of what opportunities there are out there to explain what we are doing," said Taylor. "When we talk to reporters, we direct them to the Web site, but we expect them to go off and supplement any information we give them."
Reporters aren't racing to the DoD site to get the daily scoop. They know that the agency is only putting info on the site that is fit for public consumption – no trade secrets or bad reviews here.
"It is surely their spin on the information and I guess it's up to the journalist to use it the way they want, as a starting point," offered Jane Singer, a journalism and mass media professor at the University of Iowa.
But for the regular Joe, the DoD relies on getting out its information directly through a free electronic newsletter with daily DoD updates. So far, 39,000 subscribers receive the information.
"It would make sense that the Department of Defense would use the Web to get news out about the war on terrorism to the public because the Web is accessed by many Americans at large," noted Ian Marquand, Freedom of Information Committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists.
Taylor dismissed suggestions that the agency was using the site to make an "end-run" around the traditional media by providing information directly to the public.
"It's really a supplement to what the news media are doing," he said, pointing out that since Sept. 11, the briefing room at the Pentagon, which holds only about 80 reporters, has been full. "We want to make the public record is more widely available."
Singer said this was another example of the expanding influence of the World Wide Web.
"I think you see government agencies have become much more comfortable with the medium and much more comfortable with what it can do," she said.