This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Media Unspun email newsletter and is Copyright 2002 by Keith Dawson.
M E D I A   U N S P U N
Elephant Fight

If eight blind men have trouble describing an elephant, imagine eight reporters trying to describe two elephants fighting.

Coverage was all over the map after Number Two Baby Bell SBC testified for the nine states that want to impose strict remedies on Microsoft for its antitrust violations. SBC warned that Microsoft is in a position to thwart competition in the upcoming arena of "Web services." SBC is readying a messaging product called UMS for introduction next year. (You may recall that Unspun last week covered a separate story about antitrust allegations against SBC.)

The Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, and Washington Post all ran bylined pieces whose structure stuck to the courtroom protocol -- first what SBC's representative testified, then how Microsoft's attorney tried to discredit that testimony. The reports all picked out different elements of Microsoft's riposte. The Journal noted Microsoft's claim that SBC's messaging product got the go-ahead only so that the company would have something to testify about in the antitrust trial. The L.A. Times leaned on Microsoft's assertion that what SBC is doing amounts to using the courts to stifle a little friendly competition (from Microsoft). The Post highlighted this pointed question to the SBC witness: "SBC only developed its concern about interoperability after talks broke down between the companies, isn't that correct?"

Outlets without a Washington bureau started with Reuters coverage and trimmed it to emphasize one or the other side of the tussle. CNET's editing of the wire copy slanted to Microsoft's perspective. Reuters picked up the term "strike team," which the Microsoft attorney used to describe SBC's efforts to thwart Microsoft competition. Wired's Reuters piece noted the way SBC's witness deflected this characterization: "One meeting and no follow-up in my mind does not constitute a strike team." Nando ran a bylined AP story claiming that Microsoft's lawyer "continued Microsoft's strategy of accusing other companies of being too close to the states' lawyers."

Wired's bylined piece took a bottoms-up approach, leading off with the Microsoft's point of view. (For balance Wired ran separate Reuters coverage that looked at SBC's side of the argument.) Wired was one of the few outlets to run a quote from anybody not under oath, quoting a statement from "a free-market group that receives cash from Microsoft" as echoing Microsoft's counter-claims of monopoly: "SBC's real concern is protecting its voice communications monopoly from any and all competition."

That's how elephant fights go: a lot of trumpeting and confusion and little guys getting trampled. - Keith Dawson

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