Friday, January 01, 2010
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One way news organizations discover their mistakes is when attentive readers email in corrections. And for a number of reporters in D.C., a disproportionate number of those emails seem to come from one Daniel Lippman. A recent Politico profile dubs him “The Washington press corps’ independent fact checker, copy editor and link distributor extraordinaire” and suggests that any D.C. reporter worth anything has at some point heard from the friendly, humble, accurate Mr. Lippman, sometimes just moments after the article goes live, sometimes daily. So, who is he? That’s what Ron Fournier, the Associated Press’ Washington bureau chief, wanted to know. After all, nearly three-quarters of the articles he writes provoke a Lippman missive. So he wrote back with some questions of his own, discovered Lippman was a 19-year-old kid and invited him to come by the AP’s D.C. Bureau. First, let's talk to Ron Fournier. Ron, welcome to the show.
RON FOURNIER: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did Daniel Lippman pop up on your radar?
RON FOURNIER: Well, he popped up not on my radar but in my email [BROOKE LAUGHS], like he does on dozens of other reporters’ and editors’ email. For several years now he’s been sending me notes, when I'd write a story, pointing out three or four things I had wrong with it, [LAUGHS] either typos or matters of grammar, in some cases, matters of fact.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you tell who this guy was, how old he was?
RON FOURNIER: I had no idea. I presumed he was a gray-bearded law professor wearing a tweed jacket and elbow patches. And I found out that he lived just a few miles away from where I'm sittin’ right now and attended George Washington University.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And so, you invited him to take a tour of the AP’s Washington bureau. Politico described it as a visit from royalty, or at least that’s how he was treated by the AP newsroom.
[OVERTALK/BOTH AT ONCE]
RON FOURNIER: It was. I - it was. [LAUGHS] I don't know if I could have turned as many heads if I had brought the president of the United States in.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] As soon as I walked out and said, hey, does anybody here know Daniel Lippman, a bunch of heads popped up.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Phones were hung up and people jumped up from their desks and, you know, before I knew it, there was, I don't know, eight, 10 reporters gathered around him, talking him up. And, you know, as a journalist, sometimes you forget who you’re writin’ for. And here, in the flesh and the blood, was a young man who we'd been writin’ for, for several years and has actually been a part of what we do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what’s his writing style? What’s the substance?
RON FOURNIER: Well first, it’s very polite. It always starts, “In the fine article” or “In the wonderful article,” so he starts with a [LAUGHS] flattery. It’s not partisan or, you know, heartily charged or, you know, like some of the emails we get. They're always just very point by point, almost as if you were correcting a school paper in a way that you didn't want to insult the student.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is his batting average near perfect?
RON FOURNIER: They're almost always spot-on. Then you start looking for his name. For the last year or two whenever I’d see Lippman pop up on my queue, I'd be drawn right towards him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, there’s a lot of talk about citizen journalism, and I think it brings to mind the image of thousands of citizens knocking on thousands of doors.
RON FOURNIER: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that Daniel’s is a more efficient manifestation of that idea?
RON FOURNIER: I don't know if it’s more efficient, necessarily, it’s just one of the forms. In, in many ways we're becoming a lot more closely connected with our audience. For the last 20 years, supposedly I was writin’ for Daniel Lippman. What’s wrong with me now actually engaging with Daniel Lippman?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You haven't been writing for Daniel for 20 years ‘cause he’s only 19.
RON FOURNIER: [LAUGHING] Good point, very good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This wouldn't have been possible before the Internet.
RON FOURNIER: It would not have. What would a guy like Daniel Lippman have done before, sent a letter in the snail mail? And it would have arrived four or five days later and we probably wouldn't have done anything with it. Now I can make the correction literally within five minutes after him sending the email.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Fournier is the Associated Press’ Washington bureau chief. Once we heard about Lippman, we knew we had to look out for him. And, sure enough, in an online video we happened to catch with The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, a question came in from a Daniel Lippman. The kid’s everywhere. So we tracked him down. He says his hobby got a boost a few summers ago when he got a job copy editing for a newspaper called The Berkshire Eagle, but he was doing this for years before that.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Since I read a lot of articles, if I saw a fact that was not a fact or an error, I sometimes would write to the reporter and pointing it out. And every day I'll send in 10 emails or so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when you say you read a lot of articles, that’s kind of a massive understatement.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You, you read like 80 articles a day. I mean, does that rewire your brain?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Most 80 articles aren't always the length of a New Yorker 10-page piece.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] So, they're sometimes pretty short. What I usually do is I get my schoolwork done and then I look for interesting articles in the papers that I read and the blogs and stuff like that. I only read articles that I'm interested in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was an interview that I think CNN did with you when you were 15 years old. At that point you were already a participant in White House online chats.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Daniel Lippman looks like an average 15-year-old. He also spends his free time chatting online with some of the most important people in the world - top officials at the White House.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I just wonder where somebody like you comes from.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: I think my parents always encouraged my sisters and I – or me to be informed citizens and not just apathetic. When - whenever I read stories about Afghanistan and when I read stories about bombings there or Pakistan it makes me feel lucky to live in a country where I, I don't have to worry that, that I'm going to get attacked. That just makes me appreciate how vibrant our democracy is, even though there are imperfections. You know, you can't make something perfect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm wondering, Daniel, do you have a larger goal here? By being the great seeing eye on [LAUGHS] journalism that you are, are you trying to make the entire trade less vulnerable to attacks that the media are biased or liars or lazy or venal or stupid or craven or – [LAUGHS]
DANIEL LIPPMAN: I think when people say that the media is biased, I think that’s a pretty weak argument. But when you have more accurate articles, then I think it makes it more legitimate so people can't take cheap potshots at the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you know what you want to do after you graduate?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Um –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Surprise me. Tell me that it’s big game hunting.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: [LAUGHS] I'm not – I’m not a hunter. [LAUGHING]
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I'd probably like to work in media some way or in public policy, maybe the think tank or in government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel, thank you so much.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Lippman is a sophomore at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.