San Francisco Chronicle Turns Critics into Podcast Poets

There was an amusing story by Ina Jaffe on today’s “Morning Edition” about the San Francisco Chronicle‘s brilliant idea to turn irate reader complain phone calls into podcasts.

And it all started with one irate reader.

The caller didn’t identify himself, but he had a lot to say to the San Francisco Chronicle about a piece on remote-control spy planes:

    Mr. Howe, I’m looking at the Monday issue, August 29, Page E6… It says “begins testing — Forest Service begins testing pilotless drone.” Mr Howe, is there any other kind of drone?

Which leads the caller to a whole series of questions:

    Is there any other kind of drone, drone, other than a pilotless drone? Isn’t that what a drone is: an unmanned aircraft? Don’t you check these things? Don’t you supervise the subeditors who write these headlines? Don’t you do your job?

After about a minute of this, the caller lapses into a kind of ecstatic chanting:

    Drone, drone, drone. Get it? Drone. Pilotless airplane. Drone, drone, drone — not pilotless drone!

This particular call has taken off in viral fashion, spawning cell phone ring tones and YouTube videos:

It immediately occurred to me, though, that this practice, while hysterically funny, is a violation of the privacy of the Chronicle‘s readers, who clearly had no intention of having their private complaints to the editors aired for public ridicule. It seems I’m not alone. Pat Walters of the Poynter Institute was dubious of both the legality and journalistic ethics of the practice. His colleague, Meg Martin, looked into California’s wiretapping laws and found that, so long as the recording was made with a caller’s consent (as voice mail messages indeed are) there is no legal reason they can’t be broadcast. Ethically, though, he’s not so sure.

In certain ways, this podcast works. It clearly attracts readers. And it gets them involved with content, talking about it, writing about it and playing with it. But what does it actually do to further the mission of the newspaper?

A good question. And, fundamentally, the practice does strike me as unethical. Someone writing a letter to the editor does so knowing it could be published; indeed, usually that’s the hope. The “pilotless drone” rant, though, was left nearly two years ago, long before the podcast started. Clearly, then, the caller had no expectation that his views were for public consumption.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.