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E-Mail Espionage 

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Dear Letters to the Editor:

Hot Type columnist Michael Miner remains enamored with the opinion that a jury of her peers might find Chris Geovanis guilty of "reckless disregard for the truth" for the way Geovanis reported her impromptu conversation with the Chicago Board of Education's Charlie Kyle, without Kyle's prior knowledge that he was speaking to a journalist "on the record," a journalist who would later go on to quote and paraphrase what he said to her [Letters, April 11].

OK. Fair enough. I am only too happy to concede to Miner the correctness of his specific charge that by using comments that Charlie Kyle didn't know he was making "on the record" to a journalist, Geovanis acted in a surreptitious manner.

Of course, I don't agree with Miner completely. Geovanis's stealth did not ruin her article. Nor did her stealth breach some code of journalistic ethics which only could have been repaired by her going back to Kyle after the fact and gaining his permission to draw from their earlier conversation. The more interesting questions are, did she report a good story in the March issue of Chicago Ink, or didn't she? And in what sense did Geovanis's stealth materially affect the validity of her story? If none, then what's the gripe? If insignificantly, so?

But at least let's concede to Miner that in criticizing Geovanis, he's stating a principle that he holds dear to himself--namely, the principle that unless a journalist mentions it, then what someone says to that journalist when he believes he's "speaking socially to a friend" (Miner's phrase) should not be used by the journalist without first going back and gaining the source's permission.

OK. That's fine by me. Call it one of Miner's Principles of Journalism. On Minerian principles, that is, good journalists owe it to their source to make sure that the source knows he isn't being quoted surreptitiously or unfairly--Miner's original complaint against Chris Geovanis for the way she handled Charlie Kyle ("Consider the Source," Hot Type, April 4).

The Reader can correct me if I'm mistaken. But I seem to recall that in order to write his original preview of the launching of Chicago Ink ("Chicago Ink's Inaugural Issues," Hot Type, February 28), Miner himself first had to gain surreptitious access to a long series of E-mails that the members of the Chicago Ink project had been sending back and forth to each other on the assumption that they constituted the internal communications of our group. Among the names that appeared on our E-mail directory was an editorial assistant with the Reader, and a friend of some of the members of our group. One of the names that never appeared on our E-mail directory was Michael Miner's.

Via E-mail, this editorial assistant received pretty much whatever the rest of our group received, including our internal bitchings, babblings, and "To be or not to bes." At some point, however, and completely unbeknownst to the rest of the project, Michael Miner began to monitor our internal communications with each other, which his editorial assistant shared with him. Hence, some of the sources for Miner's February 28 Hot Type. And, less directly, for the current series of exchanges between Miner and some of the members of the Chicago Ink editorial collective as well.

In other words, Miner did to Chicago Ink something very similar to what he now accuses Chris Geovanis of having done to Charlie Kyle. Only Geovanis didn't devote her whole article to Kyle. She devoted a single paragraph to him. And Miner didn't monitor the internal E-mails of just one member of our group. He monitored an untold number of the internal E-mails of a lot of members. Indeed. In the end, he even quoted from a couple of them: Tracy Jake Siska's and Ralph Suter's.

Perhaps, then, we might draw an analogy between the strongly surreptitious manner in which Miner gained access to Chicago Ink's internal E-mails, and a counterfactual case in which Chris Geovanis might have gained access to Charlie Kyle's "true" thoughts by placing a hidden microphone under his table at the El Nandu restaurant. That is, Miner gained access to our communications without our having had any prior knowledge that he was monitoring or "overhearing" or "eavesdropping" on what we were saying. No offense. But for Geovanis to have handled Kyle as sneakily as Miner handled us, she would have had to "bug" Kyle's table at the restaurant. But Geovanis didn't "bug" Kyle's table. She talked to Kyle face to face, in front of at least two witnesses. Kyle simply didn't know he was talking to someone who would eventually use his comments in an article that she wrote for Chicago Ink.

Thus it would appear that insofar as the practice of stealth journalism goes, Michael Miner, by his gaining surreptitious access to our E-mails, out-stealthed Chris Geovanis by several lengths.

So on classical Minerian principles, who's the more unethical journalist? Chris Geovanis? Or Michael Miner?

David Peterson

Chicago Ink

Ben Ortiz replies:

As the "surreptitious" editorial assistant in question, I think too much is being made of my having forwarded Chicago Ink's E-mail missives to Miner. I never saw any "top secret" label on the E-mails I received, and Ink's John Wilson even E-mailed me at the Reader and asked if I wanted to remain on the mailing list. I answered "yes" so that I could continue sharing the information with my colleague Miner in the interest of keeping up with this important Chicago media development--the founding of a new paper. My only interest was the accuracy of any story Miner might write. I wrote as much to Wilson, who kept me on the list even after Miner wrote about Ink. By the way, David Peterson E-mailed me after that first Ink story and commented: "Very naughty of you to share our E-mails with Michael Miner. Also very helpful. Thanks" (3/3/97).

I forwarded those notes to Miner with the assumption that he'd pursue and verify any quotes.

Michael Miner replies:

I would have had no problem with Chris Geovanis quoting from internal Board of Education documents that tracked the board's thinking on Clemente High School, least of all if those documents had been provided to Chicago Ink by the board itself. Instead, she quoted (misquoted, insists Charles Kyle) from a social conversation with someone who believed he was speaking to a friend. She did so without owning up to what she was doing, neither calling that friend to give him fair warning nor even publishing her article under her own name. In addition to reading their E-mail, I called Siska and Suter and interviewed them.

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