THE BLOG
10/07/2013 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Few Media Outlets Have the Power to Alter the Facts of the Stories They Are Reporting... But NYT Still Has It

Long gone are the days when major newspapers and network news operations had the power, through their selection of stories, to set the political agenda. That's a change for the better, to be sure. But the best of the ancient media regime are still peerless in their ability to compel change in the actions of the people and institutions they report on.

Take for example an article in the business section of Sunday's New York Times about commercial websites that publish police mugshots -- millions of mugshots obtained as public records from police departments across the country. These websites are in the humiliation business, posting mugshots indiscriminately, with no consideration for whether the pictured individuals have ever been convicted of a crime.

Worse, most of these websites are also in the extortion business: They offer to remove a mugshot for a fee.

The Times' very thorough story (by reporter David Segal) is hardly the first about this particular nether niche of the internet. Earlier news coverage appeared in Wired, Gizmodo, Niemanlab, Yahoo, and Searchengineland, among other outlets. But here's the difference: while the other stories about these websites could be ignored by powerful interests that have enabled and profited from them, the same firms sprung into action when they learned the Times was planning a story.

Realizing that the mugshot sites depend heavily for their revenue on internet traffic generated by search engines, the Times asked Google to explain its enviably prominent rankings of many of these sites (noting, in particular, recent changes to Google's algorithm, ostensibly designed to penalize websites, like the mugshot sites, that create no content of their own).

Three days before publication of the Times' story, the mugshot websites disappeared from the first page of results for relevant Google searches, according to the Times.

The websites' other enablers are the financial companies -- major credit cards and PayPal -- that have made it possible for the websites to collect extortion payments. The Times' reporting had a similar effect on them. Mastercard, in response to the Times' questions, reportedly said its merchant bank was dropping its largest mugshot accounts. PayPal said it was doing the same. Visa told the Times its merchant banks were investigating the mugshot website accounts to determine whether they are "in compliance with Visa operating regulations."

The Times, through its newsgathering alone, and before publication of a single word, was changing fundamentally the financial and technological underpinnings of the businesses it was reporting on. Merely by pressing for answers to its questions, the Times created a sense of urgency among some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world to demonstrate, by immediate and effective action, their intolerance for internet scams affecting their customers.

Even as traditional media hemorrhage ad revenue and struggle to maintain readership while transitioning to digital platforms, the best of these companies -- and the Times is the best of the best -- wield an influence that is wholly disproportionate to their financial prowess. They have a status that communicates to powerful institutions, whether in the private sector or public, that they must not be ignored.

This is a hugely valuable asset for a journalism business. It remains to be seen whether it can be replicated by nontraditional news media.
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Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. The views expressed here are his alone; they do not necessarily reflect the views of FAC's Board of Directors.